IOWA CITY, Iowa - While much of the focus for Iowa's inconsistent play in 2014 fell at the feet of the offense, a strong case could be made that the defense was equally erratic. It was uncharacteristically porous against the run.
The Hawkeyes graduate four key starters from the unit. All-Big Ten tackles Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis along with two-year starter at strong safety, Johnny Lodermilk, will exhaust their eligibility in the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl. Quinton Alston, who started all 12 games this season at linebacker, also moves on.
On the positive side, a lot of players gained valuable experience this season. That could pay dividends with seven starters back in '15.
In the second of a two-part series, we take an early look at how things my shake on defense next fall:
Starters - Drew Ott, TR SR; Nate Meier, TR SR; Jaleel Johnson, RS JR, Darian Cooper, RS SR: Ott was the most improved player on the team in 2014 and could be a terror next fall if he takes another step forward. Meier started and split time with Mike Hardy. He's struggled getting off the blocks of bigger linemen but has gotten better every year and another eight months of weight training should increase production. Davis and Trinca-Pasat leave big shoes to fill and their loss should not be minimized. That said, Johnson and Cooper, who will be returning from a missed season after August knee surgery, have been groomed for this time. The unit has come a long way from the disaster of '12 (think Devin Gardner scrambling for an eternity). While unspectacular, it's solid.
Others in the Mix: Faith Ekakitie and Nathan Bazata both saw action this season and could push Johnson and Cooper for starting nods depending on how much they progress in the offseason. At worst, they'll provide quality depth on the interior. Position Coach Reese Morgan likes to rotate tackles to keep them fresh so all four guys will see significant reps. Brant Gressel enters his third year on campus and could squeeze his way into the mix at tackle. Seniors Dean Tsopanides and Kyle Terlouw might surprise and provide veteran depth. The biggest question mark up front comes in the form of backups at end. For fifth-year seniors Melvin Spears and Riley McMinn, there's no tomorrow. They've flashed at times but injuries and inconsistency have held them back. Redshirt freshmen Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse, who recently moved in from linebacker, might be hard-pressed to compete physically every down but they bring high-level athleticism that can be used in spurts. Reggie Spearman might follow Hesse in moving up from the second level and would be a very intriguing prospect at end if he grows into it.
Starters - Bo Bower, RS SO; Travis Perry RS JR; Josey Jewell, RS SO: This unit suffered through some noticeable growing pains but those lumps should pay off with a group that is talented but lacked experience. Bower fits the mold of successful LEO linebackers at Iowa. He just needs to get stronger. Perry will bring the veteran leadership Quinton Alston provided in '14. Jewell plays angry and possesses the physical edge to be a good WIL. Spearman lost his starting job to Jewell and could snag it back. Their competition was close all year.
Others in the Mix: Spearman was mentioned. He could reclaim his starting WIL spot or move to end. He'll see the field in some capacity. Fifth-year senior Cole Fisher knows the system and can fill in at multiple LB spots. Ben Niemann worked on special teams and saw some reps at WIL as a true freshman. He's also versatile and could very well be in the rotation. Jameer Outsey and Aaron Mends will be available as redshirt freshmen. Incoming freshmen Justin Jinning and Jack Hockaday are targeted to take the field as linebackers in the summer. There are plenty of options here. The hope is that competition allows the best choices to rise up and improves the group's level of play overall.
Starters - Desmond King, TR JR; Greg Mabin, RS JR: Corner should be one of the strongest positions in '15. King will be among the better coverage men in the conference. He's a sure tackler and much tougher than his smaller size would indicate. Mabin turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises on the team this fall after switching over from wide receiver. Another year of seasoning will only make him more comfortable and consistent. His height and length matches up well with bigger wideouts.
Others in the Mix: Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper lost out to Mabin in camp but it was a close competition. They're quality veterans on the outside that can fill in ably if injuries hit and provide confidence for Phil Parker to utilize them in nickel and dime packages. Malik Rucker and Solomon Warfield embark on third third college seasons looking to force their way into action with the former already contributing on special teams. Omar Truitt and Marcel Joly red shirted this year and look to take the next step. The coaches are looking for another prospect at this position in the current recruiting cycle.
Starters - Jordan Lomax, RS SR; Miles Taylor, TR SO: The season started out bumpy for Lomax but he improved a great deal over its duration. He's a cerebral player who should be even better in his second year starting at free safety, the quarterback of the secondary. I'm going with a hunch on Taylor. He broke in as an effective special teams contributor as a true freshman in '14. He's fast and physical. It might just be a matter of him getting more comfortable with the system.
Others in the Mix: Anthony Gair lost out to Lomax in the race to replace Tanner Miller. Now he'll attempt to show he's capable of being one of the top two safeties and if that happens it could push Lomax to strong safety. Walk-on Kevin Ward, the brother of offensive lineman Ryan Ward, has made steady progress in his first two seasons. Another walk-on, Brandon Snyder, turned some heads in his first fall of college ball. Fellow true freshman, Joshua Jackson, offers some intriguing athleticism that had coaches believing he could play wide receiver at this level. Warfield also is a possibility at safety. The staff would like to add a safety in this current class as well.
Starter - Dillon Kidd, RS SR: Kidd won the job in August and proceeded to suffer through a woefully inconsistent first season at Iowa after transferring in from a junior college. Kidd boasts the necessary leg to be successful at this level and flashed it at times this year. Perhaps another offseason of training and a year of experience in the Power 5 will lead to more dependability.
Others in the Mix: Connor Kornbrath started for the Hawkeyes in '12 & '13 before losing his job to Kidd. The fact that he couldn't win it back this fall with Kidd's struggles speaks loudly to him having issues of his own. However, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he can make strides this offseason. Guttenberg (IA) Clayton Ridge High punter Colton Rastetter is expected to walk on this summer and perhaps can pressure the returnees. At least one of these guys needs to figure it out, for sure. Another year of dreadful punting will prove costly for a program with a slim margin for error.