This spring was the first in since maybe 2003 or '04 where the Hawkeyes played an actual scrimmage.
The defense was on the east side of the field. The offense lined up on the west. The offense ended up winning, quote and unquote, 61-37, but the defense had a lot of fun. The defensive coaches were down on the sideline and they were totally into it. This rubbed off on the players and the hooting and hollering was in full force.
That really isn't senior defensive end Dominic Alvis' thing. But the 6-4, 265-pounder did manage to crack a smile. He enjoyed the togetherness. The entire defense seemed to enjoy it. It's that kind of esprit de corps that might weld this unit into a defense that's tough to crack.
"If you look the chemistry we have just with the defense in general, I think we're all kind of closer knit. And I think that happens when you have a season like we had last season," said Alvis, a Logan native. "You go through a lot of crap together and that just brings you tighter. Definitely, I think we have better chemistry together and I think we have a lot of veterans coming back and I think we're going to have a great collective unit going into fall camp."
"Collective unit" is an important concept to keep in mind when it comes to Iowa's 4-3 defense. It's all about leverage, funneling plays back to the inside. For DEs, that means "setting an edge."
"One guy doesn't make a play on his own," Alvis said. "It's the culmination of everyone else doing their job. Then, one guy just gets credit for it. That's how our defense is built. If we get everyone working on the same page, that's how things happen."
That's how this defense can work and thrive.
Key 2012 factor: In his second season as a starter, Alvis had 31 tackles, three sacks and five tackles for loss. The thing to remember about '12 for Alvis is that he did suffer an ACL tear in week 9 of 2011. Remember that? It came on special teams in Iowa's victory over Michigan at Kinnick Stadium. It just kind of happened out in space, too. No big pile up. So, this year Alvis is two seasons removed (or nearly two) and might get a push in performance.
What about Alvis against Kain Colter and Northwestern? That was a tough performance for Alvis. That was a tough performance for the "collective" Iowa defense. As LB James Morris has said in the past, Iowa wanted to slug it out, but the Wildcats wanted a track meet. Northwestern played its game and Iowa couldn't impose its will. It wasn't just one guy, it was several not getting it done in Evanston last season.
As long as Kirk Ferentz and Phil Parker are in their chairs, Iowa will have a collective philosophy on defense. When Des Moines, Cedar Rapids/Iowa City and Davenport start producing Jadeveon Clowneys (OK, let's go with Adrian Clayborns), then maybe Iowa runs game for individuals. Until then, this is the defensive mindset that Iowa can sustain.
Offseason factor: Reese Morgan returns as Iowa's D-line coach. He's the one member of the defensive staff whose job didn't change at least a little during the offseason.
Alvis is the given of the D-line.
"He and [left offensive tackle] Brandon [Scherff] are going head-to-head, two very good players," Morgan said. "I think he’s embraced that challenge and that battle. He’s doing a really good job. A year ago he was coming off that knee and early in the season wasn't confident. As the season went on, became more confident, more productive."
With Iowa's D-line trying to find itself and build into a physical force, Alvis is going to have to "set an edge" with his teammates.
Competition: It's hard to envision any permutation of Iowa's D-line that doesn't include Alvis as one of the four starters.
In the other D-line profiles in the Top 45, I've mentioned rotation. That will happen at all four spots. Right now, sophomore Riley McMinn is listed behind Alvis and would, presumably, serve as his tag-team partner.
Iowa will have to start working on a "next" at the D-end position. Verbal commits Terrance Harris and Jameer Outsey might fit that, but that's a few years down the road.
Why No. 9?: Where is the pass rush going to come from? That remains a valid question. Iowa's 13 sacks last season was a Ferentz-era low. The greatest pass coverage in history will crumble if a QB has all day to survey.
Alvis, who has 5.5 career sacks, needs to be a factor here. That said, you see offenses. You see how quickly QBs get rid of the football now. You don't see too many teams using a seven-step drop. Sacks are one thing, but disruption is really what any defense wants.
"Very few times are you going to get more than two and a half seconds," Morgan said. "So, you have to be able to get off the block, get some pressure on somebody and contain the quarterback, which we need to do a better job of.
"Then we are asking a guy who’s a defensive end, line up on the tight end, make sure you hit him, he doesn’t release, release him. Then, you have to take on the right tackle or left tackle and pressure the quarterback and you have to do that all in two and a half, three seconds.
"We're asking a lot of the guys, but they are responding and we know that’s an area that we have to improve upon."
Outlook: Alvis is set up to have his best season as a Hawkeye. He's healthy. He's comfortable in the system and knows his job inside and out. Iowa will need him at his best. Here are the mobile QBs the Hawkeyes face this season: Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch, Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Northwestern's Kain Colter, Michigan's Devin Gardner and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez.
Setting the edge is a pretty big deal for Iowa this season.Click here for an interactive look at the complete Top 45 series.