IOWA CITY — It was just a couple of photos from a practice in the spring.
The University of Iowa athletics department posted some picture galleries on its website this spring. On the April 24, one of the pictures showed middle linebacker James Morris lined up opposite left tackle Brandon Scherff in a one-on-one pass rush drill.
Yes, intriguing. Is defensive coordinator Phil Parker really looking to use the 6-2, 240-pound senior in pass-rush situations? Hmm.
“We did it once and that was all,” Morris said with a laugh. “Maybe the coaches didn’t like what they saw? I don’t know. Maybe they have it as one of their bag of tricks they might pull out in late November? I don’t know. They [coaches] don’t tell us much, either.”
Pass rush is certainly a question mark for the 2013 Hawkeyes’ defense. Last season, Iowa finished last in the Big Ten with 13 sacks and 53 tackles for loss, 115th and 108th nationally, respectively. Also, those were Kirk Ferentz-era lows. The 1-10 team in Ferentz’s first season in 1999 finished with 20 sacks and 59 tackles for loss.
Iowa’s defense finished last in the Big Ten in disruption and mayhem.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker covered that topic this spring. Morris is right, there wasn’t a lot of light shed on the topic. Going off what Parker said, don’t expect fireworks, expect a defense that will try to wring out pressure with four D-linemen.
Parker did leave some wiggle room for possible pass-rush specialists.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to add a little bit to it, to the pass‑rush, maybe try to get some other guys that can rush the passer, try to work on that a little bit through the off‑season, the summertime, maybe have some guys practice doing that, obviously during two‑a‑days,” said Parker, who’s entering his second season as D coordinator. “For right now that’s who it’s going to be [the D-line is the pass rush] and we’ll try to add some guys in the near future.”
As far as adding guys, Morris says he doesn’t think he’s on that list.
“I doubt it,” he said. “[His role] hasn’t changed in the last three. I don’t foresee it changing next year. I’d be open to it. Who doesn’t want to rush the passer. It’s like the quarterback or running back for the defense. Everyone would be open to that role.”
Outside linebacker Christian Kirksey doesn’t think he’ll line up on the edge and rush the passer. (He also was shown in that gallery in a one-on-one pass rush drill.)
“If we were to rush the quarterback, whoever does it will be the guy who does it,” the senior said. “I’m sure the coaches have a plan. If they want me to rush the passer, I’m sure they’ll coach me on it, or any of the linebackers for that matter. Whoever the pass rush guy is will help out.”
Of course, it’s tremendous when the four D-linemen provide the pass rush, rack up the tackles for loss, cause the general mayhem. Some of Ferentz’s best teams — 2002, 2004 and 2009 — had NFL-caliber defensive linemen who provided disruption and allowed seven to drop back into pass coverage. Those are D-lines that produced — deep breath — Colin Cole, Howard Hodges, Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux, Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug and Christian Ballard. Also, defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul set the table for the 2009 group.
The question of blitzing came up to Parker this spring.
“We might have to create some situations a little bit more to help them out [the D-line], maybe add some guys to the rush a little bit to
help them out,” Parker said. “It’s hard to get there when you have five guys blocking four. We all understand that.
“My biggest thing is try not to give up big plays. I think the game is still about scoring, not giving up points. That’s the most important thing. I think for the last two years, we were 24, last year we were 23. That’s my main concern, is points.”
Therein lies the gamble of calling a defense. You can’t give a QB six seconds to survey a field. He will pick you apart. You can’t afford to blitz at a huge percentage. You can’t be predictable in your approach to the blitz.
“It’s a balance,” Morris said. “If you send five guys [into the rush] too often, then you get beat. For us, it’s about finding that balance. If you can get pressure with four — I’m not talking about sacks, I’m talking about moving the pocket, make the quarterback [move] — if you can do that with four, that’s good. You’ll take a fifth and play the odds.
“I think right now, they’re just worrying about getting those four guys ready.”
And there it is. Parker will lean on what’s worked — for the most part — for Iowa, the 4-3 alignment with a low percentage of blitzing and a zone philosophy in the secondary. This is Parker’s 15th year in Iowa City. Iowa has recruited to this and so the roster for any sort of sea change would need stocking.
Here are five players who could provide pressure — and will likely be counted on to — and allow Iowa’s defense to remain in its comfort zone.
Defensive tackle Carl Davis — The 6-5, 315-pounder was a terror from the inside during Iowa’s spring game. In Phil Steele’s preview magazine, Davis is listed as a preseason second-team all-Big Ten pick. The knee problems that dogged the early part of the junior’s career at Iowa (kneecap popped out of place twice) seem to have faded. He was Iowa’s most dominant DL this spring. The only caveat is some of the success at the spring game came at the expense of sophomore Jordan Walsh, a second-teamer.
Defensive end Drew Ott — The 6-4, 265-pound sophomore played before his time, jumping into the rotation as a true freshman in week 8 last season against Northwestern. He didn’t register much of a impact. He put on around 20 pounds this offseason. He was banged up during spring practice. He is being counted on to be a top four DE and, probably, a starter this fall.
Defensive end Dominic Alvis — The 6-4, 265-pound senior has 5.5 career sacks. He’s shown an ability to get to the QB, but hasn’t been consistent. One factor that was discounted last season was the torn ACL Alvis suffered late in 2011. He never used it as an excuse, but he should be more effective with the time that now has passed. Alvis relies on power over speed in the rush.
Defensive end Faith Ekakitie — This will be Ekakitie’s redshirt freshman year. He spent much of his true freshman year as a defensive tackle. This spring, though, he worked more and more as a defensive end. It’s probably fair to project him as a DE when camp opens this fall. Ekakitie will play, the big question is how he will be used. Will the 6-3, 287-pounder show the wheels to earn time in pass situations? That’s an August question.
Defensive end Nate Meier — The 6-2, 235-pound sophomore saw some limited time on special teams last season. One of the final recruits of the 2012 recruiting class, Meier went from eight-man football at Fremont-Mills High School in western Iowa to playing kick coverage in the Big Ten. Meier is kind of a wildcard. There is no question he’s undersized, but along with that comes some explosion that might be worth mining on the edge. Still, Iowa doesn’t have a “pass rush specialist” on defense and Meier would be counted on as a full-service DE.