IOWA CITY -- A lot of the same personnel is back for Iowa's 2013 defense.
Coordinator Phil Parker will be in his second year calling defenses. He'll have three seniors at linebacker, a bunch of bodies returning on the defensive line and a secondary that returns three of four starters.
A "returning player" doesn't automatically mean a better player. Iowa's defense needs to improve. The numbers say it (opposing offenses completed 63.5 percent of passes against Iowa last season, the highest completion percent ever allowed by an Iowa defense). The coaches say it. The players say it.
The assignment from practice one this spring has been to sharpen the returning players. A lot of work -- a lot, a lot -- goes into the bigger, faster, stronger part, but work also needs to be done on what Iowa is doing on the field. There's a player who gains 10 pounds of muscle, and there's a player who understands the core concept.
"Really after a while, when you study guys, understand the game, it’s going to help what they’re trying to do," Parker said this week. "I think we need to do a better job of that, so they understand what plays they’re going to see instead of saying it’s a personnel issue or you’re not blitzing enough.
"To me it’s just about understanding the game."
In that regard, the 2012 season provided a lot of teachable moments, the "what not to do" that's been digested this winter and spring in defensive meeting rooms.
"I don’t mind guys getting beat if they’re contested, [if] the plays are contested," Parker said this week. "You look at how many big plays we gave up, compared to the year before, years in the past, very similar numbers, it's just probably some of them are a little bit uncontested for running free."
The Michigan game comes to mind. Iowa lost 42-17 and allowed 513 yards, with Michigan scoring touchdowns on its first six possessions. QB Devin Gardner threw for 314 yards and three TDs. Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, in his press conference announcing his decision to stay in Ann Arbor, talked about a play in the game in which the Wolverines gave Gardner 11 seconds of pass protection.
After mentioning "uncontested," Parker talked about returning players in the secondary.
"I think a year of experience has done them some good, understanding the system, getting familiar with it," Parker said. "[Free safety] Tanner [Miller] has done a better job of staying focused, trying to be a leader back in the secondary, along with [cornerback] B.J. [Lowery.] Obviously, B.J., in my opinion, is playing at his highest level he has right now. Hopefully, he continues that."
Another game from the "what doesn't kill you, should make you stronger" department was at Northwestern. Wildcats QB Kain Colter pushed the right buttons and directed a 349-yard performance on the ground, the most against the Hawkeyes since Indiana went for 433 in 2000. Running back Venric Mark averaged 10.1 yards on 16 carries.
"That [game] was an opportunity for us to put a flag in the ground and say, 'Hey, we're going to fight,'" linebacker James Morris said, "I think we did that, but we didn't do it well enough, not detailed enough."
Iowa's defense relies on leverage and players knowing their angle and where they have help. Too often against the Wildcats -- who led 28-3 early in the third quarter -- Iowa saw a defender or two lose leverage.
"Some of the big plays that came out are leverage problems, base football, understanding how to run to the ball, how to seek the [ball carrier]," Parker said. "Sometimes, just because you’re running fast doesn’t mean you’re going in the right proper position to go ahead and track a guy.
"I think a couple of those were broken up just because of bad angles. The game is about angles. I think we didn’t do a good enough job in that area."
This is where a returning player can become a better player. This is what "attention to detail" is. This is the refinement you might see when a redshirt freshman becomes a sophomore.
"When you're on the field as a player, you need to have a broader scope, a thought process that needs to be bigger as far as 'Do I take this angle?' 'Where are other people on the field in relationship to me?'" Morris said. "Knowing where my help is is a big part of that."
This is what makes a bunch of athletes into a cohesive defense. This is what Iowa's best defenses have done, maximizing the athletes Iowa is able to land in recruiting and turning them into a group that plays together.
"Athleticism makes overcoming fundamental mistakes easier," Morris said. "And so the idea is if we are less of an athlete, then we have to be more fundamentally sound. I'm not going to get into who's more athletic, Iowa or Northwestern, but we can help ourselves and that's all we're worried about."