Heading into the 2003 season, most Iowa fans felt the defense was going to be the ‘bell cow' for this Iowa football team.
So many of the key ingredients that created the most explosive offense in school history in 2002 had either graduated or turned professional.
There were question marks on the offensive line, at backup running back and depth at the receiver position.
We all knew that Erik Jensen could block on offense, but what type of contributions could he make in the passing game?
Conversely, The defense had few question marks.
And through the midway point of the 2003 season, they have not disappointed.
Through six games, Iowa is allowing just 13.3 points per game, 8th best in the nation. They are allowing just 82.5 rushing yards per game, 15th best in the nation. Their 232.3 passing yards per game allowed is not among the nation's leaders, but it is much improved over the 338.7 passing yards per game the 2002 team allowed through its first six games.
On the whole, Iowa is allowing 314.8 total yards per game compared to 395.0 from a year ago. The Hawkeyes are 27th in the nation in total defense.
Combine the D with Iowa's special teams units, which are one again among the nation's best, and you have the ingredients for another run at a Big Ten championship.
When you look at the individual players, it is hard to single out just one or two of them as being more valuable than the rest. The adage of ‘There is no "I" in team' rings true with the Hawkeye defenders.
Jovon Johnson is playing great football this year (T-1st in the league in INT's & 5th in the league in passes defended) and Antwan Allen is improved (2nd in the league in passes defended, 3rd in passes broken up). Bob Sanders is Bob Sanders, but when he missed two games due to injury, Chris Smith stepped in and played outstanding football. Sean Considine has more than filled in for Derek Pagel and Jonathon Babineaux has made the move inside to defensive tackle with little problem.
Jared Clauss is another ‘Ted Williams' of the Iowa football program. What he does game in and game out might not be noticed in the box score or on the highlight reel, but he continually faces double teams and yet, his motor never dips during the course of the game and come the 4th quarter, Clauss can usually be found in the opponent's backfield, as was illustrated with his 4th quarter sack of John Navarre last weekend in Iowa City.
I am going to have to go with multiple defensive MVP's again, this time selecting the unit that I think has made the biggest difference compared to a year ago.
First of all, my rationale: The single biggest difference I see from this year's defense over last year's defense is the ability to defend the pass on a consistent basis.
I might be taking Iowa's ability to stop the run with just four defensive linemen for granted, but that is what Ron Aiken and Norm Parker have done to us over the last three years. We are spoiled with the greatness that we have been witness to.
Where Iowa was hurt a year ago was when the linebackers had to cover running backs and slot receivers in pass coverage.
Fred Barr is the 4th all-time leading tackler in Iowa football history. You can't take anything away from him. But Barr was a run-stopper first and a coverage backer reluctantly.
Kevin Worthy had over 80 tackles for the Big Ten Champions.
Grant Steen was solid last year and is having a great, great season this year. The differences might be hard to notice, but as the ‘Leo' or strong side linebacker, Steen is truly an under appreciated asset to the Iowa defense, be it in the flat or reading run blitzes. He has improved over the course of the last year.
While we didn't know exactly what to expect out of Hodge and Greenway, we certainly were excited about seeing them play this year. Most fans felt that this LB crew was going to be faster than any unit we have seen at Iowa in a long time, if ever, and they have not let us down.
A lot of fans will watch the football when viewing an Iowa game and I am guilty of that when I watch the games live. But when you watch the tape of the games and can focus on the defense, it is like watching a different contest altogether, and the excitement level can be as fun as it was the first time through.
That has been the case for me this year when I watch the Iowa linebackers fly to the football.
It is easy to get caught up in the hyperbole of saying ‘so and so is the best ever'. I try to steer clear of that.
But I have not seen three linebackers at Iowa that get to the football any faster than Steen, Greenway and Hodge.
As sophomores, Greenway and Hodge are ranked 1st and 3rd in the Big Ten in tackles, respectively. They are 1-2 in the league in solo tackles; Greenway with 42 and Hodge with 37. One of the reasons for that is their ability to fly to the football and another reason is that the front four are requiring teams to commit five or six blockers to snuff them out.
But these two are better than their statistics indicate. They are excellent in pass coverage and if the receiver they are guarding does catch a pass, they get little to no yards after the catch. It can be a dangerous thing for a linebacker to be guarding a receiver in the slot, and Iowa's linebackers have yet to give up a big play in the slot or across the middle due to a missed tackle.
What is even more exciting to watch is the physicality of this group. It all started a few years back with ‘The Godfather', Bob Sanders. His physical play and attitude have spread throughout the Iowa defense like some high-tech bio-terror bug.
These three have answered the call and with Sanders on the sidelines a bit this year, they set the pace.
Who will forget Steen's crushing blow in the left flat against ISU's Lane Danielson? Chad Greenway has been blowing people up out in the flat all season long.
When Sander's went down, I wondered who was going to be the heart and soul of the defense? Someone was going to have to take that role next year after Bob graduates.
I think Greenway is going to be Sanders' heir apparent as far as taking opponents to the woodshed goes.
I said last off season about as respectfully as I could that Abdul Hodge was going to make us forget about Fred Barr. I didn't mean that as a slight to Barr, because he was one of the more colorful players in recent memory and was big piece in the turnaround of the Iowa football program when he and fellow Floridian Colin Cole chose to leave the Sunshine State and play for Iowa.
But Hodge can stop the run and he is fast and a solid pass defender.
Two Heisman-hopeful quarterback have left Kinnick Stadium this year with their tails between their legs. The credit has to go around to the entire defense, but I think the Iowa linebackers and their ability to defend the pass better this year than last is a huge reason for that.
When these three move on to their next phase of life, Iowa football fans may break out into a song of lament: ‘Has anybody here, seen those great linebackers? Can you tell me where they've gone? I thought I saw them -- walking up over a hill; Steen, Greenway and Hodge.'
We've got Greenway and Hodge for two and a half more years, and Steen for just seven more games.
Folks, be sure to enjoy what you are watching when these guys line up together.
UP NEXT: SPECIAL TEAMS/OTHER AWARDS