Explaining the ‘Next Man In’ mentality that makes the Iowa defense great
The Hawkeye defense has accounted for nine turnovers and three touchdowns through four games this seaosn.
September 30, 2021
The Iowa defense has a simple mentality this season: Next man in.
Everybody, no matter if they’re in the first-string lineup or on the scout team, works like a starter in practice. Any defensive player will be ready to take over at any time.
“Our coaches just showed that all the time, ‘Next man in,’” sophomore linebacker Jestin Jacobs said. “And you always have to be ready … It’s just always about paying attention, and getting the mental reps when you’re on the sideline. So then when you do get in there, you’ll be ready to go.”
Multi-year defensive starters and freshmen Hawkeye players alike take on the ‘next man in’ mentality. And it’s that mentality that’s forced nine turnovers, scored three touchdowns, and held opponents to 11 points per game this season. It’s what makes Iowa’s defense — at all three levels — one of the best in the nation.
Senior cornerback Riley Moss first turned two interceptions against Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. into touchdowns in Iowa’s season-opener.
One week later, senior cornerback Matt Hankins had two interceptions against Iowa State on Sept. 11, contributing to the defense’s four forced turnovers.
“You can definitely feel [an energy change],” Hankins said of the turnovers. “Just a momentum shift, the offense comes over and says, ‘We gonna put it in, we’re gonna put it in,’ you can definitely feel the energy change.”
The Hawkeyes’ Week 3 victory against Kent State included a safety when Golden Flash quarterback Dustin Crum was tackled in the end zone for the first score of the game.
While the defense struggled in the first half of Iowa’s victory over Colorado State Sept. 25, the Hawkeyes did enough to extend their 26-game streak of allowing fewer than 25 points — the longest streak in the nation.
Junior linebacker Jack Campbell’s fumble recovery on the Rams’ 6-yard line in the third quarter set up the Iowa offense for a game-tying score, as Iowa amassed 17 unanswered second-half points to move to 4-0.
The defense’s “next man in” mentality has created an impassable unit on and off the field. Every player is always ready to make a play. That embodies the unit’s standard.
But that defensive connection started during the shortened 2020 season.
The COVID-19 season
The Hawkeyes spent a lot of time together, on and off the field, last season.
The Big Ten, which originally postponed the fall season in August, restarted the season Oct. 23 and the Hawkeyes were subject to strict protocols. Players, coaches, and Tier 1 staff had to be antigen tested daily, and if any Big Ten team’s positivity rate was over 5 percent, it had to stop all football activities for seven days.
If a player tested positive, he had to be out for at least 21 days and go through extensive cardio testing before he could be cleared to play.
That’s not something the Hawkeyes wanted to do.
So, players only hung out with each other throughout the entire season to avoid the risk of coming in contact with COVID-19.
“Looking back on it, I would definitely say it [helped us],” Jacobs said. “I mean, obviously, we really couldn’t be outside the team a lot because COVID was going on. We had to be strict with what we were doing, and just being around each other, going through all the adversity, going through all the uncertainty, it just helped us grow as a team. And, I mean, obviously, we’re just seeing that now, it’s just kept drawing.”
Moss noted that going through the season of uncertainty as a team helped last season’s Hawkeyes become close — something that’s translated onto this roster.
“This is probably my favorite team that we’ve been on at Iowa,” Moss said. “Just because partially [I’m a] senior but the other, like, we also are just so close with the freshmen, the sophomores, and I think that really has a big turnover for our defense because we trust each other so much and the communication is so good.”
‘Next man in’
Iowa’s defense lost six starters from last season: Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon, Jack Heflin, Austin Schulte, Barrington Wade, and Nick Niemann.
But the bond created by the shortened, isolating 2020 season is still at the core of this season’s Hawkeye defense.
“It’s just a blessing to walk into the facility and work with the defensive unit every day,” Campbell said. “I mean, it’s just like we have a special bond, and seeing each of the guys day in and day out makes it worth it to come in and put in my full effort.”
And for the depth-heavy Hawkeyes, youth isn’t an excuse.
Iowa only has four seniors on its two-deep defensive roster, and multiple freshmen have seen significant playing time.
Iowa’s defensive line utilizes a rotation. Behind the starters on the defensive line — junior left defensive end John Waggoner, junior left tackle Noah Shannon, sophomore right tackle Logan Lee, and senior right defensive end Zach VanValkenburg — backups rotate in and out.
Assistant defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said the coaches prefer to have their line take breaks — especially against a waning offense at the end of a game.
“I think we would like to play as many guys as we feel are ready to play,” Niemann said. “And I think what’s happened these first three weeks will be a reflection of what happens the remainder of the schedule as long as the guys who are out there getting their job done. Which they have been up until now, and there’s no reason to believe that they won’t continue to do that.
“It can just help us, particularly late in the game, to have fresh bodies that we can continue to put on the field. Guys who are situationally playing. Pass rush, downs, whatever, it just helps keep guys fresh, helps give guys a role, and keeps everybody plugged in.”
Redshirt freshmen Lukas Van Ness, Yayha Black, and Deontae Craig — all No. 2s on the depth chart — have all seen crucial snaps on the field.
Van Ness contributed to the Hawkeyes’ safety against Kent State, while also recording two sacks for a loss of 16 yards. Van Ness and junior defensive lineman Joe Evans, who also lines up with the second team, tied for the team lead with two sacks each against Crum.
The Hawkeyes sacked Crum a total of seven times — the highest number of sacks in one game for the Hawkeye football program since 2000.
No matter if a player is a starter or on the scout team, the defensive coaching staff expects everyone to prepare the same way.
“All of our young guys are hungry to get better,” Jacobs said. “Each and every one of them come in here ready to work, head down, and you’re just seeing that on the field. The coaches often say to us, ‘Youth is not an excuse.’ And they’re really taking that and working.”
Iowa’s defense practices with a two-man deficit throughout the week, taking on the Hawkeye offense nine-on-seven.
“Our physicality just comes from the way we practice,” Campbell said. “There’s not a day we’re not going to thud someone up, we’re not going to skip blocks. I mean, I don’t know how many teams in the country do block drills. We’re nine-on-seven competing against the offense.”
Still, the defense tries to force four turnovers per practice.
The Hawkeyes often exceed that number. But for the defense, it’s just “the standard,” set by the coaches: Defensive coordinator Phil Parker, defensive line coach Kelvin Bell, Niemann, and linebackers coach Seth Wallace.
“The standard is the standard,” Hankins said. “Every day, we come in to practice and set the standard for four turnovers a day. That’s what we strive to do.”
Although Iowa’s defense hasn’t recorded four turnovers in a game since the season opener against Indiana, it has accumulated nine in the first four games, leading to 51 points.
The Hawkeyes have also benched three veteran quarterbacks they saw this season: Penix, Iowa State’s Brock Purdy, and Crum.
Of Iowa’s 14 total touchdowns, three have been scored by the defense. But for the Hawkeyes, that’s just standard.
“Hard work is always going to beat talent,” Campbell said. “So, just having that aspect and going out there and executing. There’s mistakes here and there that will get cleaned up, but I mean, when we were on that field I felt like there were 11 guys flying around that ball and that’s just the standard we’ve set here.”