The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Iowa football notebook | Hawkeye defense adjusts to new-look offense

Hawkeye defenders noted a sharp increase in motion and aggressiveness under offensive coordinator Tim Lester.
Cody Blissett
Iowa Defensive Back Xavier Nwankpa interacts with teammates during a spring football practice at the Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, April 22, 2023.

Perhaps the most frequently asked question to Iowa football’s defensive backs and linemen wasn’t about coordinator Phil Parker’s unit but rather the offensive squad that lines up against it everyday in spring practice.

Just a few weeks into spring ball, it appears new offensive coordinator Tim Lester has sparked some noticeable changes. 

“I see a lot of motion, just trying to trick our eyes,” Hawkeye second-year cornerback Deshaun Lee said at media availability Tuesday. “The offense took a big jump. I’m loving it. Great competitiveness.” 

Other Hawkeye defenders agreed with Lee’s sentiment, calling the offense confusing and somewhat annoying to play against.

“Trying to make adjustments on the fly every play, it’s tough,” third-year lineman Aaron Graves said. “I think [the offense] is settling into it really nicely now.” 

Graves added that offensive players refer to Lester’s system as a page out of NFL head coach Kyle Shanahan’s playbook. He said Lester’s scheme often forces a linebacker out of the box and closer to the sidelines. 

In the receiving game, Lee explained he’s been seeing more deep balls and double-moves. As for tight ends, defensive end Ethan Hurkett said the position is still utilized just as much as last season but with a different twist. 

While Hurkett declined to comment on what this difference was, the Iowa defense looks like it will have its hands full in the coming months as the Hawkeyes prepare for their annual spring game on April 20. In the meantime, the defensive line looks to grow after losing two key contributors. The secondary features familiar faces but also contains young players making a name for themselves. 

Defensive line cohesion 

When Week 1 rolls around Aug. 31 against Illinois State, the Iowa defensive line will be without Joe Evans, the team’s sack leader last season, and Logan Lee, who topped the defensive front in total tackles in 2023. In their stead will be Graves, along with seniors Deontae Craig, Ethan Hurkett, and Yahya Black. The group was listed as the defensive line starters in the spring depth chart. 

Hurkett, who collected 52 tackles and an interception last season, said Evans and Lee “set the standard” of play and leadership for the Hawkeyes, and now the onus is on the rest of the group to carry on that legacy. 

“Nobody wants to hear somebody constantly chirping at them, obviously,” he said. “So I just try to lead by example as much as I can and try to do the same kind of things that Joe and Logan showed me.”

Iowa’s 33 sacks in 2023-24 ranked 45th in the nation, and the line’s production shot up after Evans led a players-only meeting ahead of the Hawkeyes’ Oct. 7 matchup against Purdue. Yet Hurkett still found flaws in the group’s play.  

Hurkett noted that too often last season, the defensive line would rely on individual pass rushes rather than in-sync movement that contained the opposing quarterback in the pocket. Graves said accomplishing this unison requires patience in timing and discipline in technique, especially when a team like Tennessee runs a spread offense. 

If Graves needs another reminder to stay committed to a team-oriented pass rush, he has the words of linebacker Jay Higgins ringing in his ears. 

“Jay just tells me, ‘Keep my ass in the gap,” the lineman said with a smile. “‘Just stay in there and make my job a little easier. Quit doing your own thing.’” 

Young DBs look to make a statement 

Even with the departure of star cornerback Cooper DeJean to the NFL Draft, the Iowa secondary returns three routine-starters in cornerback Jermari Harris, safety Quinn Schulte, and defensive back Sebastian Castro, each of whom elected to stay another season in Iowa City.

The trio will be joined by Deshaun Lee at left corner and Xavier Nwankpa at strong safety. Lee started six games last season as a redshirt freshman, but the limited experience still taught him valuable lessons. 

Lee explained how he should’ve nabbed interceptions in the Cy-Hawk matchup against Iowa State and Senior Day against Illinois. He said he needed to play faster but also have the presence of mind to recognize offensive patterns. 

“In our defense, a big component to making plays is being in the right position,” he said. “So, really, it’s my eyes. I remember a lot of times last year, if my eyes had been better, I would’ve been a little quicker to the play.” 

Backing up Harris and Schulte in the spring depth chart are second-years John Nestor and Koen Entringer, respectively. Both played mostly on special teams last year, but the second-stringers have already made an impression on their teammates. 

Nwankpa said Nestor reminds him of former Hawkeye standout and current Denver Bronco Riley Moss. Others even refer to him as a young Parker at Michigan State. 

“He’s bouncing off the walls all the time, it’s really cool to see,” Nwankpa said of Nestor. “Everywhere he goes, as soon as he wakes up till he goes to bed. I don’t know how he does that, but it’s exciting to have a guy on the team who keeps the composure.” 

Entringer turned heads in the Big Ten title game last year with his chase-down tackle on a punt return. He played in the bowl game against Tennessee and picked up a tackle but is sitting out this spring due to a knee injury. 

While discouraged by the setback, Entringer said he should be back to full health by August. In the meantime, he looks to grow his mental game by taking in the  “celebral” play of Schulte and others in the secondary. These mental reps have appeared to pay off. 

In film meetings with Parker, Nwankpa noted Entringer speaking up a lot more, answering questions from others even before the coordinator had time to respond. 

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About the Contributors
Matt McGowan
Matt McGowan, Pregame Editor
he/him/his Matt McGowan is The Daily Iowan's Pregame Editor. He is a sophomore double majoring in journalism and mass communications and American studies with a minor in sport studies.  This is his second year with the DI
Cody Blissett
Cody Blissett, Visuals Editor
Cody Blissett is a visual editor at The Daily Iowan. He is a third year student at the University of Iowa studying cinema and screenwriting. This is his first year working for The Daily Iowan.