Hawkeye football’s defense locked and loaded for 2019

The Hawkeye defense lost key pieces due to graduation and the NFL, but thanks to a deep group, Iowa has the talent to reload for another steady campaign.

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Hawkeye football’s defense locked and loaded for 2019

Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa returns a fumble for a touchdown during Iowa's game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 63-0.

Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa returns a fumble for a touchdown during Iowa's game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 63-0.

Nick Rohlman

Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa returns a fumble for a touchdown during Iowa's game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 63-0.

Nick Rohlman

Nick Rohlman

Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa returns a fumble for a touchdown during Iowa's game against Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 63-0.

Adam Hensley, Pregame Editor

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Coming off a season in which Iowa ranked 11th in scoring defense (17.8 points per game), 12th in rushing yards allowed (109.5 yards per game), and tied for second in the country with 20 interceptions, the Hawkeyes boasted one of the country’s best defenses.

But as Iowa’s season came to a close with a win over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl, the Hawkeyes lost key players to graduation and the NFL.

Defensive back Amani Hooker and defensive end Anthony Nelson declared early for the NFL. Defensive tackles Matt Nelson and Sam Brincks, linebacker Jack Hockaday, defensive end Parker Hesse, and safety Jake Gervase all started last season but won’t return, because they are set to graduate.

Just as the offense has its fair share of players to replace, the defense does as well, but looking ahead to 2019, the Hawkeyes are primed for yet another solid defensive season.

Defensive line

All four starters on the line have either graduated or left for the NFL. Most teams would be sweating at this point (the starters combined for 14.5 sacks last year), but Iowa’s depth on the line gives the Hawkeyes plenty of flexibility and talent to reload.

Matt Nelson and Brincks didn’t put up gaudy stat lines in their time at defensive tackles, but their presence will definitely be missed, both on and off the field with leadership. Look to Cedrick Lattimore or Brady Reiff to fill the void in the middle. Each tallied 1 sack last season.

RELATED: Looking ahead to Iowa football’s 2019 offense

Defensive end will be Iowa’s strong suit next season, as A.J. Epenesa (finally) will see time as a starter. He led the Hawkeyes with 10.5 sacks. For anyone (if there truly is anyone) who doubts Epenesa’s ability, look at his performance against Illinois for some reassurance (1.5 sacks, blocked punt, fumble recovery for a touchdown).

Throw in Chauncey Golston as well. He had 3.5 sacks last season, showing the ability to consistently pressure the passer and create problems in the running game. He’s got excellent size as well (6-5, 265 pounds).

Linebackers

Iowa Linebacker Nick Niemann (49) celebrates a defensive stop with defensive back Amani Hooker (27)during Iowa’s game against Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cyclones 13-3 (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan).

Hockaday departs after proving to be a steady starter in the middle. But Iowa used a solid linebacker rotation last season, and most returners have solid game experience.

Nick Niemann dealt with injury at times, but he was an explosive force on the edge and one of Iowa’s fastest members at the position. Kristian Welch and Djimon Colbert will also see playing time as well.

Colbert (52 tackles) and Welch (49) enter 2019 as the top returning tacklers on the Hawkeye defense.

It’ll be interesting to see how the position plays out next season, considering how often the group rotated in 2018.

Secondary

Gervase and Hooker are arguably Iowa’s costliest departures.

Gervase (team-high 89 tackles and 4 interceptions) and Hooker (65 tackles and 4 interceptions) were the leaders in the secondary with a knack for finding the ball.

However, the Hawkeyes still have safety Geno Stone and cornerbacks Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia, and all three have plenty of experience.

Stone proved to be a pleasant surprise last season, and head coach Kirk Ferentz said his dominance at safety allowed defensive coordinator Phil Parker to move Hooker down to a safety/linebacker hybrid slot. Last season, Stone intercepted four passes and returned one for a touchdown.

Meanwhile, Iowa’s corner tandem of Hankins and Ojemudia (3 interceptions) rarely gave up big pass plays, and they provided excellent support against the running game. Hankins finished 2018 with 48 tackles (29 solo), and Ojemudia notched 39 of his own (23 solo).

Riley Moss and Julius Brents, two cornerbacks who filled in when both Hankins and Ojemudia missed time, could also see the field next season.

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