Iowa's defense was bad in 2012 and anyone that tells you different simply didn't pay attention to the way most teams found ways to torch it. However, some may say that you must take your lumps in order to grow and that is the hope for Kirk Ferentz's bunch as they head into 2013.
It does help that the Hawkeyes return 8 of 11 starters from last season, the problem is that what was there wasn't very good and one of those that are gone also happens to have been the most dynamic player on that side of the ball.
No doubt about it, this side of the ball needs to show it learned it's lessons and grew from them because they'll get a stern test right out of the gate, facing reigning MAC Champion and Orange Bowl participant, Northern Illinois to open the season for the 2nd straight year.
Will this group show the growth some think it will? Who are players that will key this defense? Let's explore that and more as we dive into the 2013 Iowa Hawkeyes defense.
The biggest problem for the defense in 2013 was a lack of any pass rush up front and in 2013 it best be coming from their best athlete up front, Dominic Alvis. Problem is, this guy can't stay healthy. However, if he does the 6-4, 265lbs. senior may be the biggest surprise on this team. He finished last year 2nd on the team with a whole 3 sacks - that's how bad the pass rush was for Iowa in 2012, in case you needed reminding.
Opposite of Alvis at end will be sophomore Drew Ott, another 265lbs. end who saw some time as redshirt freshman last season. If for some reason Ott doesn't grab the bull by the horns in camp expect that to be because fellow sophomore Riley McMinn is showing he can be a run stopper as well as play well against the pass. Lord knows this group needs both things to happen and that combination may just win him some playing time anyway.
Personally, I'm a fan of Louis Trinca-Pasat and think he could be an All-Big Ten kind of player because for 290lbs. he's a quick, explosive and versatile presence up the middle. If he stays healthy this season expect big things from him. He is coming off of a 40 tackle, 4 tackles for loss season last year, so he can do it. The question for Trinca-Pasat is how healthy that shoulder of his is, if it's not 100% there are options. Next up could be junior Carl Davis, who at 6-5, 310lbs. is a massive force to be reckoning with up the middle but is nowhere near the dynamic playmaker Pasat is. Look for Darian Cooper to be the guy on the right side of the defensive interior and at 280lbs. he's the perfect size to do some damage to opposing offensive backfields. He showed glimpses of it last year making 3.5 tackles for loss and as he enters his sophomore season things have to be looking up for him.
On the whole this group has the potential to really help the issues that plagued this team in 2012, but it is a thin group in terms of experience and in terms of health issues. As long as everyone stays relatively healthy this group should help the Hawkeyes defense make some improvements.
No question this is the group that has produced the most and yet needs to prove the most. All three starters are back in seniors Anthony Hitchens, James Morris, and Christian Kirksey and all three were great tacklers last season, racking up 124, 113, and 95 tackles respectively. Those were the top three numbers on the team in 2012, problem is it didn't amount to a hill of beans considering the team ranked 9th in total defense and 7th in rushing defense. If you're making those ridiculous amounts of tackles beyond 5 yards past the line of scrimmage every time you aren't helping your team.
Sure, they could use some help up front, but some of it falls on them to start making plays sooner. Should any of this trio go down look for the names of Quinton Alston (MLB), Travis Perry (OLB), and Cole Fisher (OLB) to be the guys stepping up. However, for me the one name to watch the most may be incoming freshman John Kenny, who some see as the top of the 2013 recruiting class. If he proves he can hang in camp, expect him to get his feet wet in anticipation of 2014 where all three of the starters will be gone.
Remember when we talked about the problem entering this year being the loss of the most dynamic playmaker? Well, that comes in the secondary as all-everything Micah Hyde is off to the Green Bay Packers of the NFL.
Looking to take over that role is the young sophomore Jordan Lomax. At 5-10 and 190lbs. he is a great fit in the scheme Iowa likes to run in their secondary, problem is he missed all of last season with a shoulder injury and that means a chance he isn't as dynamic off the bat as one would like. Expect him to settle into the starting role nicely though and by season's end he could be the next big star in the Hawkeyes' secondary.
Returning as full-time starters are corner B.J. Lowrey, who finished last year with 50 tackles and 1 INT, and safety Tanner Miller. Miller is steady as she goes in the backfield as a free safety, making 69 tackles and breaking up 5 passes in 2012. The question mark here is if Lowrey can find a way to stay 100% healthy because behind him are some pretty green options at corner.
For me though, the battle and two names to watch comes at the other safety spot at John Lowdermilk and Nico Law will battle it out all camp long for that job. Lowdermilk made just 6 tackles a season ago in spot duty, but was the star of the spring in the secondary and if he keeps that up he will force the coaching staff to play him more often than not. Don't expect Law, the incumbent to give up his spot easily. Law was good as a tackler in his first year as a starter, making 28 stops, but his ball skills need some work, only breaking up 1 and defending 1 pass last year. That has to change for a defense looking to find dynamic, not steady players.