Iowa CITY, Iowa - Much of the off-season angst surrounding the Iowa defense the last few seasons as centered on its line. Those questions have shifted to the next level of the unit in 2014.
The Hawkeyes gained traction with its front-four last fall due the maturation of players and the guidance of position coach Reese Morgan. They welcomed back three full-time starters - Drew Ott, Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat - and a part-time first-teamer (Mike Hardy) when spring practice kicked off this week.
Iowa still must work on mustering a consistent pass rush but its ability to contain the edge has improved dramatically during the past two years. Of course, the line's development occurred while three productive linebackers roamed behind it. Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens completed their eligibility in January's Outback Bowl.
Each member of the Hawkeye linebacking trio finished among the Top 10 tacklers in the Big Ten in '13. Those guys hit hard, converted on blitzes and covered receivers and tight ends well. They made easier the jobs of the athletes playing in front of and behind them.
The line now must provide that support for a green group of linebackers. Travis Perry, Quinton Alston and Reggie Spearman are listed as starters at the beginning of spring ball. They come into practice with most of their experience having come on special teams.
"The biggest thing, especially in the initial stages, is to encourage guys to play aggressive," Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Not be afraid to make a mistake because we're not going to lose a game this spring. It's not a crisis situation, if somebody blows an assignment or a coverage, at this point of the year.
"We want to identify guys as they cut it loose a little bit and see what they look like. Most players look different each phase. They ought to look different than they did back in December. The big thing is to cut it loose and we'll worry about those details later on."
Kirksey and Morris were thrown into action probably before they were ready as a true sophomore and true freshman, respectively. Hitchens also was raw in '12 when he became a starter after moving up from safety. Alston and Perry have been in the program for three years and Spearman showed an aptitude as a playmaker last fall being part-time defensive end and special teams performer.
Coordinator Phil Parker also will be looking to replace first-team, all-Big Ten cornerback B.J. Lowery and three-year starting free safety Tanner Miller. Their exits have not elicited the same concern outside of the program as has that of the linebackers, but the coaches understand filling those spots with productive players is equally essential for success.
Junior Jordan Lomax began spring No. 1 on the depth chart at free safety after starting the '13 opener at cornerback before exiting with an injury and losing that job to Desmond King. The D.C. area product impressed Parker while working at safety during December's bowl prep. He played as a true freshman prior to red shirting in '12 following a surgery.
"He's got some of the traits that you look for in safety," Ferentz said. "He's a physical player, he's very intelligent, he's been an honor student since he's been here, and communicative that way. I think he's got some traits that we've seen other safeties or good safeties that we've had. We worked with him last year at that position. Seemed like he took to it pretty naturally."
Anthony Gair backed up Miller at free safety last season and is competing with Lomax for the position, Ferentz said. Senior Nico Law has a chance to push his way into the starting lineup at strong safety, which would move the incumbent there, Johnny Lowdermilk, to the free spot, the coach added.
Ferentz said that the safety spots are tied to cornerback as well. The coaches feel good about the players competing for Lowery's vacancy opposite King but there's a chance Lomax could end up being the best replacement there.
"Our job is to get the best 11 guys out there on any situation. So that's what the players expect and want. It's fair to want that and they want to compete. At the end of the day not everybody is going to start. That's the reality of college football. But the best guys guys have to earn it on the field, that's what it's all about," Ferentz said.
The defense still is evolving. The Hawkeyes are more versatile on that side of the ball than they've been in years and Parker is showing creativity in countering offenses built on speed.
In '13, the coordinator unveiled the "Raider" package in which Alston and Nate Meier lined up as defensive ends in a 3-4 alignment. Nickel and dime packages were utilized as much or more as at any other time in Ferentz's 15 years leading the program.
The late Norm Parker (no relation to Phil) excelled with the base 4-3 and very few substitutions as Iowa coordinator. Phil has transformed things the last two season at the helm.
Expect to see more players involved in the defense this season. Maybe Law gets a look at linebacker in a 3-4. A good chance exists that Parker employs more defensive backs and creates ways to pressure the quarterback beyond just a four-man rush on obvious passing downs.
Some of those things will be sorted out this spring. It should be interesting.