The 1990 and 1991 teams were strong in the front seven with individuals who stopped the run. DT Jim Johnson, DT Matt Ruhland, LB John Derby, and LB Melvin Foster were great against the run, and opposing offenses were forced to become one-dimensional throwing teams that usually ended up turning the ball over against the Iowa Secondary. In 1991 the pass defense was further aided by DE Leroy Smith and his ability to rush the passer. In one of the greatest seasons in Iowa history, Smith registered 18 sacks in the 10-1-1 Hawkeye campaign.
1996 and 1997 also featured great players in the front seven, but the secondary keyed the success of the defense both seasons. LB Matt Hughes, LB Vernon Rollins, and DT Jon LaFleur were good against the run, but Defensive Coordinator Bob Elliot often put cornerbacks like Tom Knight on an island in man-to-man pass coverage so that safeties like Damien Robinson and Kerry Cooks could help with stopping the run and blitzing in pass situations. DE Bill Ennis-Inge was good at rushing the passer, while DT Jared DeVries was a stud against the run and pass, but the secondary and their ability to cover and tackle gave Coach Elliot the flexibility to put eight players near the line of scrimmage to stop the run and rush the passer. This also made things easier for DeVries and the front seven. This year's secondary:
The 2002 defense has good linebackers and good overall depth at the position to go with good defensive tackles, but can the cornerbacks play well enough to give Defensive Coordinator Norm Parker the flexibility to blitz and use safeties like Bob Sanders to stop the run? The Hawkeyes have great depth at safety and a possible all-American candidate at SS in Sanders (5-8, 194), but if the corners cannot hold their own, the safeties will not be able to live around the line of scrimmage.
The Iowa Secondary looked to be one of the stronger and more experienced units on the team heading into August. Although cornerback Matt Stockdale graduated, he had not played since the Michigan game midway through the 2001 season after suffering a leg injury. In effect, the team was going to return all four starters in the secondary since D.J. Johnson started the last five games after Stockdale's injury and recorded 28 tackles. In addition to returning every backfield starter from the Alamo Bowl, Sanders and CB Bennie Sapp would be potential all-Big Ten selections with each having already started games over two seasons.
Cornerback went from a strength to a question mark after Sapp was kicked off the team in August. Redshirt freshman Antwan Allen (5-10, 167) is the clear-cut starter at the position after starting against Akron, but despite his talent and good reviews from the Iowa Coaches, has still not proven himself. Johnson had a good off-season at the other corner position, but Sapp was supposed to be the one that was going to cover the best receivers on the opposing teams. Following the Akron game, it still remains to be seen who the best cover corner is going to be. It may not matter too much right now, but by the time Iowa plays Michigan State and star WR Charlie Rodgers, either Allen or Johnson need to be able to step up.
The backups have some talent, but are also unproven. Adolphus Shelton (5-10, 180) came to Iowa as a raw speedster from Texas, but the redshirt freshman made big strides this summer to move up to a backup role. Sophomore Chigozie Ejiasi (6-0, 200) is a former walk-on from Cedar Rapids, but he has good size and can hit well. His cover skills are getting better, but they still need to improve. True freshman Jovon Johnson (5-9, 165) is a great athlete, but is small right now and is going through his first season on the college level. He has the quickness and athletic ability to move up the depth chart quickly, and the coaches must feel good about his abilities since he is not redshirting.
The safety position is almost the opposite of corner as the depth chart is loaded with experience and talent. Sanders in now a junior, but he has been making highlight hits on opposing ball carries since his first game as a true freshman. The hardest hitting safety at Iowa since at least Damien Robinson in 1996, Sanders recorded 122 tackles last year and was national defensive player of the week after recording 25 tackles against Indiana. When he first started playing in 2000, his pass coverage skills were not that good so he was usually blitzing whenever possible, but last season he was dramatically better in that area. He had four interceptions in 2001, but also still recorded a sack and six tackles for loss.
Senior Derek Pagel (6-1, 203) is a former walk-on, but he is a legit player that has forced other talented Hawkeyes to assume a backup role. Derek started six games last season and had 44 tackles, including four tackles for loss, and had one interception. He is not the quickest or fastest Hawkeye, but he makes good decisions, sees the field well, and is a good run stopper. Junior Chris Smith (5-11, 195) played very well in pass coverage while also delivering a couple of great hits during the first two games of last season, but then suffered a knee injury and lost his starting job at free safety. He did not play as well after he returned, but it says a lot about how Pagel is playing that Chris is not. As long as Smith works hard, he should be starting again one day.
The other two quality backups have not seen as much playing time at Iowa as Chris Smith, but they both could be starters. Sean Considine (6-0, 197) was not a heralded recruit, but the sophomore is constantly being mentioned by Coach Ferentz in press conferences for his play. He has also practiced at cornerback. Jermire Roberts (6-2, 210) was a big recruiting catch after his junior college success in Texas, but so far the junior has not made the impact that many Hawk fans hoped for. In junior college he was known as a big hitter who also intercepted eleven passes his sophomore year. He has the size and athletic ability to be a very good player, but still makes too many mental mistakes on the practice field. Last year he took a medical redshirt after hurting his knee in preseason drills.
Much like the Akron game, the Iowa secondary is once again facing a good quarterback this week in Miami's (Ohio) Ben Roethlisberger. Ben threw for 3,105 yards and 25 touchdowns last season as a freshman, and was the running the controls last week when Miami beat North Carolina. The game is in Ohio, so the Hawks have a chance to play a good passing team on the road in hostile conditions to help prepare them for the rest of the season. The secondary also gets another chance to show everyone that even without Bennie Sapp they will be a good unit again this season. Good safety play is almost a given for this group, but just how good will be determined in part by how well the cornerbacks play.