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Iowa Football Notebook: Hawkeyes Digging Deeper into Defensive Playbook

October 22, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

Hawkeye Nation

IOWA CITY, Iowa – An already stout Iowa defense gave opponents more to think about during Saturday’s 26-20 victory against Purdue. The Hawkeyes utilized more players on that side of the ball than it had during other competitive games this season.

They showed more of a hybrid safety/linebacker look known as Cash that was popularized by Amani Hooker last year. True freshman Dane Belton filled that role against the Boilermakers’ pass-happy offense.

Iowa lined up in the nickel package with Terry Roberts and continued using a rush-package with Amani Jones at end. Reserve edge men John Waggoner and Zach VanValkenburg received more reps. Freshmen Dillon Doyle and Jack Campbell split duties at middle linebacker with starter Kristian Welch sidelined.

The Hawkeyes have employed a lot of athletes in the secondary, which allows the staff to mix and match, finding the best combinations against various opponents. They looked smooth transitioning between different alignments Saturday.

“We’ve been (practicing) it all year,” safety Geno Stone said. “It was just a matter of time before we started doing it in a game. I feel like coaches definitely trust us now. It was more just getting everybody experienced throughout the whole year.”

Belton, Roberts, Riley Moss, Julius Brents and D.J. Johnson all are first- or second-year defensive backs contributing. Moss and Brents are getting comfortable after dealing with injuries.

Depth is key and so is Belton’s development at Cash. Finding a player capable of covering receivers while also supporting the run can be difficult.

It’s what made Hooker so special. He was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in April following just three seasons at Iowa.

“I think Dane did a good job for us,” linebacker Djimon Colbert sad. “We knew that team was going to come out and sling the ball around because they did it on us last year. That helped us stop the pass. We still have some improvements we can work on.”

Belton dealt with an injury early this season, which is partly why he’s only played in two games. Ferentz indicated it’s reasonable that the Florida native could exceed the four-game limit to red shirt.

“We’re trying to win. If a player can help us win, that’s been our attitude for quite a while now. Whether a freshman or a senior. If they can demonstrate they can find a role, help us win football games, we’re certainly going to play them,” the coach said.

“I think he made a good showing on Saturday. He’ll be able to help us on special teams, too. As long as he doesn’t hit a wall here, we’ll just keep pushing him forward.”

The Hawkeyes adding depth and versatility could be bad news for opponents. They’re already allowing only 11.6 points per game, the lowest total in 21 years under head coach Kirk Ferentz. The 275 yards given up per game are the fewest since 1984 (272.2). The 98 first downs yielded (14.0 per game) are the sixth lowest in the country and second in the Big Ten.

“I really think that helps our defense, giving guys breaks, showing different formations,” defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore said.

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INJURY REPORT: An Iowa offense already finding it hard reaching the end zone will be without one of its top player-makers for at least the next three weeks. Ferentz says receiver Brandon Smith will be sidelined with a leg injury suffered against Purdue.

After Saturday’s game, Ferentz felt encouraged by Smith’s initial diagnosis, saying it could be a bone bruise. After further testing, it turned out more serious.

“I think we’re looking at probably three, four, five weeks, probably, ballpark. There’s no way to just say when. So wherever that puts us, that’s where it puts us. Looked like it might be a contusion, then kind of went south on us,” the coach said.

Smith, a sophomore from Mississippi, leads Iowa with 33 receptions (407 yards) and four touchdowns. Replacing him will be a collective effort.

“We got a good group of receivers, certainly better than we did two years ago, even a year ago. Just spreads it around a little bit more, a little bit more opportunity for the other players. It’s part of football, everybody absorbing part of that loss,” Ferentz said.

The coach indicated that backup Tyrone Tracy will start at X receiver in Smith’s place. Ihmir Smith-Marsette, the starter on the opposite side, would would be the No. 2 at X. Iowa will work backups into his spot and the slot, where Nico Ragaini starts.

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Michigan transfer Oliver Martin has been the No. 5 receiver so far this season. He could see an uptick in playing time. So could Calvin Lockett and Max Cooper.

“He’s certainly been in the mix, is in the mix,” Ferentz said of Martin. “Subtract one good player out of the mix, there’s more snaps available for everybody.”

Middle linebacker Kristian Welch missed last week’s game with an undisclosed injury. He has not returned to practice.

“We’ll have to see how that goes. I’m not overly optimistic there in that regard,” the coach said.

BOUNCING BACK: Starting running back Mekhi Sargent finished the Purdue game with a flourish. He ended up with 68 yards on 13 carries, 35 coming on his final two carries. His final tote, a 14-yard touchdown run, clinched the victory and showed off his power.

The junior from Florida had been struggling along with the rest of the running game. It felt good for everybody watching him getting back on track.

“That’s an awesome feeling seeing a guy like Mekhi run his butt off. It’s something special to see,” center Tyler Linderbaum said. “It’s a great feeling being already five yards down the field and Mekhi’s another 10 yards ahead of you.”

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Sargent had been rolling along through the first four games. When he fumbled away his first carry in a 10-3 loss at Michigan in Game 5, it bothered him.

“It hung with me for a few days. But we’re still in season. You don’t want to be thinking negative or dwelling on the past. My thing was to just move forward. There’s a lot of football left. I just want to continue being the best player I can be for the team,” Sargent said.

And he realized mistakes happen.

“I wasn’t the first to cough the ball up, and I don’t be the last,” he said.

CLEARLY CLOUDY: There’s a question about who will start at left cornerback Saturday. Kirk Ferentz isn’t ready to answer it.

Moss and Matt Hankins were listed as Co-No. 1s on this week’s depth chart. The latter replaced the former during the Purdue.

“We’ll let him practice this week, make a decision. We weren’t necessarily planning on putting Riley in the other day. He did a good job. No sense taking him out. Kind of that way with every position,” Ferentz said.

D.J. Johnson started three games at the spot while Hankins and Moss were sidelined with injuries.

“He’s healthy, fine. Nobody is mad at him. He’s doing a great job,” Ferentz said. “It’s just every game is a little bit different. He’s certainly in the mix. He’s doing really well. No story there as far as I know.”

EXTRA POINTS: Welch, Nate Stanley, Toren Young and Brady Ross are this week’s Iowa captains…The Hawkeye defense ranks fifth in the country in scoring defense (11.6 ppg), eighth in rushing defense (91.1 ypg), and 10th in total defense (275.0 ypg)…Smith-Marsette needs nine yards to become the 42nd player in program history to reach 1,000 yards receiving. He has 2,179 all-purpose yards. Only 19 players in school history have 2,500 or more.

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