Iowa football sees strength in the secondary

The hype is all on its defensive line, but Iowa’s secondary has been quietly solid in 2018.


Nick Rohlman

Iowa strong safety Amani Hooker dives into the end zone after intercepting a pass on Ohio State's first play from scrimmage during Iowa's game against Ohio State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017. The Hawkeyes defeated the Buckeyes 55 to 24.

Adam Hensley, Pregame Editor

Through the first two weeks of college football, one thing is clear: Iowa’s defense is good.

The defensive line essentially stole the show, with A.J. Epenesa, Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson, and Matt Nelson wreaking havoc on the line.

But Iowa’s secondary hasn’t received the hype or attention as the other defensive positional groups, yet opposing quarterbacks are averaging just 139.5 yards per game against the Hawkeyes.

“We know we’ve got kind of a special group up front with the D-line, and if we’re doing our job on the back end — communicating, reading our keys, staying on top, and making plays — it could be a special year,” safety Jake Gervase said. “But at the same time, it’s Week 3. We have to take it one week at a time.”

In Week 1, the Hawkeyes limited Northern Illinois quarterback Marcus Childers to a passer rating lower than 100 (96.5) and limited the Huskies to just one gain of 20-plus yards through the air.

Iowa’s secondary did the same against Iowa State the following week — Cyclone quarterback Kyle Kempt’s second pass of the game went for 31 yards, but after that play, the Hawkeyes never allowed a gain for more than 15 yards (until the fourth quarter when backup quarterback Zeb Noland threw a 23-yard pass).

When Kempt hit his receiver in stride for 31 yards, it appeared Iowa’s defense would be in for a long day, but adjustment, courtesy of defensive coordinator Phil Parker, changed the tide, specifically in the secondary.

After Kempt’s long pass, the secondary held the Cyclone signal caller to just 95 yards.

“We’re together,” safety Amani Hooker said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to who’s playing for who, and right now, we’re playing for each other.”

But Iowa’s defensive backs can do more than just cover receivers; tackling is a big part of their game as well.

Cornerbacks Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins shut any outside runs down on Sept. 1.

On one play in particular, Iowa State tailback David Montgomery, known widely as one of the league’s most explosive and elusive backs, took a handoff to the left, and Ojemudia was the only player on the outside, tackling Montgomery for no gain.

“Corners, especially at Iowa, that’s our job — to set a hard edge. Just keep everything contained in for the defense,” Ojemudia said. “… It’s effective. That’s why [we do] it. We’re not just out here to cover. We also have a part in the running game.”

While it wasn’t on a running play, fellow corner Hankins made a touchdown-saving tackle on Iowa State’s Dylan Soehner, stopping the receiver 2 yards from the goal line. Without Hankins’ driving tackle, the Cyclones would have gone up by a touchdown early.

“Coach Parker was really pleased with [Hankins’ play],” Ojemudia said. “We were, too.”

With Iowa gearing up for Northern Iowa on Saturday, the Hawkeyes aren’t focused on that potential of their defense — the Panthers are Iowa’s top focus, as they should be.

But the potential is there for the Hawkeye unit to be stellar.

“Anything’s possible,” Gervase said. “Between the players and the coaches, we like where we’re at so far.”

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