Dan Cagley's 2002 Defensive Front Seven Preview

2001 was a year of marked improvement for the Iowa Football program. Not only did the Hawks post their first winning season since 1997, but won their first bowl game since 1996. The improvement showed in the statistics as the offense led the Big Ten in scoring (32.6), while the defense was ranked third in points allowed (21.5).

When Coach Kirk Ferentz came to Iowa, his key to turning around the program lay with developing the ability to run the ball on offense and to stop the run on defense. The team was able to do this in many games last season, but what about this year?

The defense that took the field in 1999 for Coach Ferentz and Defensive Coordinator Norm Parker lacked speed and good cover defenders in the secondary. The defensive line did not have a good pass rusher, and Coach Parker did not blitz much since the team lacked speed and the corners and safeties had difficulties in coverage. To cover up for the secondary, the team did not run as many aggressive calls to gang up on stopping the run the way that Oregon did last season. As a result, the defense gave up an average of 245.3 rushing yards per game.

The first half of the 2000 season was not much better, but noticeable changes started taking place as the season progressed. The defensive line of Jerry Montgomery, Derrick Pickens, Aaron Kampman, and Anthony Herron combined with linebackers LeVar Woods, R.J. Meyer, and Fred Barr to form one of the most physical front sevens in the country. Elusive quarterbacks and misdirection plays run by opposing speedsters still hurt the group for big gains, but no one could just line up and play smash mouth football anymore. The other main change was that Bennie Sapp, Matt Stockdale, and Bob Sanders became new starters in the secondary as the season rolled on. Stockdale and Sapp began to improve the overall pass coverage, while Sanders became a big hitter that helped stop the run. His play also raised the play of others, as many defenders became better tacklers.

The attitude carried over last season as Sanders and the front seven only gave up an average of 117.1 rushing yards per game. The Iowa run defense was ranked second to Michigan. Many of the players were the same cast of players from 2000, except that DE Colin Cole, LB Grant Steen, CB D.J. Johnson, and FS Derek Pagel became new starters.

This season will have a different look on defense up front, as Montgomery, Pickens, and Kampman are gone. Cole (6-2, 300) is the only senior and the only returning starter among the front four. Last season he posted 62 tackles, including 14 tackles for losses, and five quarterback sacks from the LDE position. Last season Cole was the biggest defensive end in the Big Ten, but is now moving inside to his natural DT position. Junior DT Jared Clauss (6-5, 287) got to play a lot last season due to injuries to Montgomery and Pickens, and recorded 27 tackles, including six tackles for losses, and a sack. Even though both starting defensive tackles graduated last season, the Hawks do not lack experience inside among the starters in 2002.

The backup positions inside have the least amount of depth on the defense. Redshirt freshman Fabian Dodd (6-3, 280) has been publicly mentioned by Coach Ferentz as having made good strides, but the other backup spot is a question mark. Junior O.J. Payne (5-9, 251) lacks size, while senior Scott Webb (6-2, 295) has not seen much in the way of increased playing time in his time in Iowa City. One other option at this position is true freshman Steve Burch (6-2, 270) who was a linebacker/defensive lineman in high school. Burch is reported to have great quickness, especially lateral quickness, but may still redshirt this year since only two true freshmen were listed by Coach Ferentz as likely candidates to play this year.

The projected starters at defensive end do not have the experience that the inside players have, but there seems to be better depth. Junior Howard Hodges (6-2, 250) made noise as a potential pass rusher during his redshirt season as he was a terror on the practice field. However, in his two seasons in varsity play, Hodges has seen limited action and found limited success. He missed four games at the end of last season because of a foot injury. With good depth behind him, Howard needs to have a breakout year. If he does, he might be the best pass rushing end since Bill Ennis-Inge.

Sophomore Jonathan Babineaux (6-2, 262) is also untested. Coach Ferentz felt he was really coming on in the spring of 2001 before breaking his leg and missing the entire season. He started three games at fullback in 2000 as a true freshman, and was athletic for his size. Much like the role that Cole played at RDE last season, Babineaux should be an athletic run-stopping end that registers a decent sack total.

By next season the roster may have several good ends to choose from, but right now the two that are closest to starting are sophomore Matt Roth (6-4, 255) and sophomore Derreck Robinson (6-5, 273). Robinson is still raw and lacks technique, but he has a great natural frame for an end. He is sitting out the opener against Akron as a result of being suspended this summer.

Roth was a celebrated high school linebacker from Illinois, but had a hard time learning how to drop into pass coverage in college. His strengths in high school were his ability to hit people and to get into the opposing backfield. Now that he switched to DE, he gets to do the things that he is good at. In addition, while his speed was average at linebacker, it is above average at defensive end. Defensive Coordinator Norm Parker has already been quoted talking about Matt and his NFL future, while Coach Ferentz has positively mentioned Matt's play as well. "Matt Roth has done a nice job of making the transition up front," Ferentz said. "I'm real pleased with Matt Roth at the defensive end position."

The defensive line has questions that have yet to be answered, but the linebacking corps is deep and talented. Last year's two-headed monster of MLBs R.J. Meyer and Mike Dolezal graduated, but everyone else returns. Meyer was super physical against the run while Dolezal was a little better against the pass, but both were classic MLBs. This season, senior Fred Barr (6-2, 242) moves over from the outside to take the position.

Fred was second on the team in tackles last season with 116, and had seven tackles for loss, four pass breakups, and two sacks. A three-year starter who was named to The Sporting News All-American Freshman team in 1999, Fred could become just the fourth Hawkeye ever to record 400 tackles if he has another good season. Moving inside should mean that he records more tackles than he ever has before, and his average range for an outside linebacker should become above average as an inside backer. Much like fellow high school teammate Colin Cole, Coach Ferentz is expecting a big year from Fred in both productive play on the field and leadership on and off the field.

Redshirt freshman Abdul Hodge (6-2, 226) is listed as the backup, and is perhaps more talented in range and speed than Barr is. In the spring game he impressed with his ability to laterally move from sideline to sideline, yet was still very physical. The future of the linebacking corps looks very good because, as impressive as Hodge was, redshirt freshman Chad Greenway (6-4, 225) looked as fast and hit harder. Greenway was backing up at the WLB spot during the game, and looked to be making a move towards becoming a starter when he hurt his knee. He should be fully cleared to play in a few weeks.

Junior Kevin Worthy (6-2, 235) is the starter that was being challenged by Greenway at WLB, but according to Coach Ferentz has really become more consistent in his play during fall practice. In previous seasons, Worthy has been a deep snapper and came in at linebacker in pass situations. He played a lot at the end of the 2000 season in pass situations, but due to the play of Fred Barr last season, saw more sporadic time. Redshirt freshman Mike Follett (6-5, 235) is the third of the promising young linebackers, and due to Greenway's injury, is listed as the backup to Worthy. Mike has the frame to play several positions in the future like TE or DE, but the former quarterback moves well at LB.

Junior Grant Steen (6-3, 238) was not known by many fans last season when he stepped in to replace LeVar Woods, but he put together a solid season. The former walk-on had 67 tackles, including four tackles for loss, four pass breakups, and one interception. He should be even better this season. His backup returns as well, as junior George Lewis (6-2, 236) is a very physical player. There was talk in the off-season that George might move to DE, but with the move of Roth, that talk quieted.

The front seven does not have the experience or overall size and power of last year's unit, but if the defensive ends can be physical like Kampman and Cole were, they will certainly be quicker and put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Clauss should be good on the interior and Cole could be very good if they both stay healthy. The linebackers should be very good with the starters and the future talent as backups. This year's front seven may be better at rushing the passer, but in the Big Ten, stopping the run is the first priority. Not only does this group look capable of doing that, but Bob Sanders and a quality group of safeties are still around to help out.

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