Spring Football Preview: Examining the Hawkeye Defense
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Outlaw Era is over.
Iowa begins spring practice Wednesday without graduated all-American linebacker Josey Jewell, one of the top players in Hawkeye history. Replacing he and the other two starters at the position will be the defense’s focus during the period.
Jewell manned the middle for the last three seasons while Ben Niemann held down the LEO spot during that period. Bo Bower started the last two years on the weak-side.
Working on replacing all-American cornerback Josh Jackson ranks highly on the to-do list. Sorting out the safety situation and replacing the steady Nathan Bazata at defensive tackle also are on there.
Let’s take a position-by-position look at the Hawkeye defense heading into spring ball:
Projected Starters: Parker Hesse, Matt Nelson, Cedrick Lattimore, Anthony Nelson
Backups: Chauncey Golston, Levi Duwa, Sam Brincks, Brandon Simon, A.J. Epenesa, Romeo McKnight, Garret Jansen, Daviyon Nixon, Jake Newborg, Austin Schulte, Brady Reiff, Tyler Linderbaum, Noah Shannon, John Waggoner
Outlook: Before there’s a meltdown over A.J. Epenesa (6-5, 277) not being listed as a starter, allow me to explain. He’s a defensive end, a position with multiple-year starters in Anthony Nelson (6-7, 271) and Parker Hesse (6-3, 261). The Samoan sophomore will see plenty of reps and may end up starting if he proves worthy this spring and summer.
It speaks to the depth of talent at this position. Expect there to be at least an eight-man rotation on the front. Competition for playing time will be stiff this offseason.
On the edge, Sam Brincks (6-5, 275) returns after being in the rotation last fall. Chauncey Golston (6-5, 265) is developing nicely and could play his way into more time. Brandon Simon (6-0, 250), Austin Schulte (6-4, 275) and Romeo McKnight (6-4, 257), all third-year sophomores, also are looking to move up the ladder with big springs.
Inside, Brady Reiff (6-3, 272) and Garret Jansen (6-2, 280) provide veteran support behind Lattimore and Matt Nelson, who is missing spring ball with an injury. Newcomer Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 306) from Iowa Western could force his way into the action if he can pick things up quickly. He’s naturally gifted.
The depth could point to Tyler Linderbaum (6-2, 260), Noah Shannon (6-1, 310) and John Waggoner (6-6, 260) red shirting. They’ll arrive on campus in June.
In addition to depth, the line features versatility. That might allow for different looks with guys like Hesse, Brincks and Epenesa seeing time on the inside, especially in obvious passing situations.
Projected Starters: Nick Niemann, Kristian Welch, Amani Jones
Backups: Nate Wieland, Aaron Mends, Djimon Colbert, Barrington Wade, Dillon Doyle, Jack Hockaday, Kyle Taylor, Seth Benson, Logan Klemp, Jayden McDonald
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Outlook: Don’t put much stock in the projected starters I have listed. It’s derived from last year’s depth chart and comments from the coaches. It’s a wide open competition this spring that likely will carry into the summer.
Niemann (6-4, 232) looks to have the strongest line on a starting position, replacing his brother at LEO. He boasts the skill set to succeed at a key position.
Kristian Welch (6-3, 238) saw a lot of practice reps behind Jewell last season. Senior Jack Hockaday (6-1, 235) started a game at middle linebacker in ’16 and will battle hard for the spot this spring.
Amani Jones (6-0, 238) impressed the coaches during bowl prep, seeing reps in the middle and on the weak-side. Aaron Mends (6-0, 228), a senior, is hoping to break through as a starter at the WIL after spending time on the depth chart the last few years.
Redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert (6-1, 234) is someone on which to keep an eye this spring. He spent the fall learning the position after moving over from safety in August camp.
Like the defensive line, there’s enough versatility here that coaches can move guys around this spring in search of the best trio. Coordinator Phil Parker also is hinting at pushing a safety up into the LEO position against pass-happy offenses.
Projected Starters: Matt Hankins, Manny Rugamba
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Backups: Trey Creamer, Josh Turner, Cam Harrell, Michael Ojemudia, Cedric Boswell, D.J. Johnson, Terry Roberts
Outlook: Iowa will be searching this spring for someone to emerge like Josh Jackson, a relative unknown this time a year ago who became a unanimous all-American and a potential first-round draft pick. That’s much easier said than done.
Matt Hankins (6-1, 185), Manny Rugamba (5-11, 193) and Michael Ojemudia (6-1, 199) all started games last year. They experienced high and lows, and will be searching for consistency this spring. They head into the practice session as the Top 3 at the position.
Trey Creamer (6-0, 190), Josh Turner (5-11, 188) and Cam Harrell (5-10, 195) red shirted last season as true freshmen. They arrived on campus well regarded and will be trying to push their way up the depth chart.
Cedric Boswell (5-11, 190) enters his third season on campus. Incoming recruits D.J. Johnson (6-0, 170) and Terry Roberts (5-10, 170) arrive this summer with a chance for early playing time.
It’s an important spring for development at cornerback. Iowa lost three players at this position to the NFL after the last two seasons in Jackson, Desmond King and Greg Mabin.
Projected Starters: Brandon Snyder, Amani Hooker
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Backups: Geno Stone, Jake Gervase, Julius Brents, Dallas Craddieth, Kaevon Merriweather
Outlook: Injuries and inconsistency created a lot movement at safety last season. Iowa goes into spring trying to stabilize the position.
Amani Hooker (6-0, 210) will start and has the ability to play both spots. It will be a matter of which other safety proves worthy of starting alongside him.
Brandon Snyder (6-0, 214) is recovering from a second ACL surgery, the latest one suffered in October, and will miss spring ball. He started as a sophomore in ’16 and then sustained his first knee injury last spring. He also is working to get back in the coaches’ good graces after pleading guilty in February to a December OWI charge.
Jake Gervase (6-1, 212) started 10 games at free safety last season, including the final seven. He’ll have the spring, while Snyder is sidelined, to increase his stock.
As a true freshman, Geno Stone (5-11, 209) saw action at strong safety when injuries hit last year. He accounted well for himself and could force his way into the starting lineup with a strong spring, moving Hooker over to the free spot.
There’s obviously opportunities for incoming freshmen Julius Brents (6-2, 179), Dallas Craddieth (6-0, 197) and Kaevon Merriweather (6-2, 195) when they arrive in June. The same goes for walk-ons like John Milani and Colton Dinsdale, who was recruited from Iowa Western as a linebacker but is listed on the roster as a defensive back.
Parker mentioned Hooker as being a possible part-time hybrid linebacker. That would allow Stone along with Snyder or Gervase to be on the field at the same time.
Projected Starter: Colten Rastetter
Backups: Ryan Gersonde
Outlook: Punter was an adventure last season, to say the least. In combination with an inconsistent offense, it cost the Hawkeyes far too often.
Iowa previously benefitted by bringing in a junior college punters in Dillon Kidd, an honorable mention all-Big Ten pick in ’15, and graduate transfer Ron Coluzzi in ’16. They’ve been searching for potential graduate transfers again. They liked Columbia’s Parker Thome, who committed to Vanderbilt February.
In the meantime, Rastetter and Gersonde have an opportunity to show the coaches this spring that they’re capable.