CORALVILLE — Last season, when the Hawkeyes thudded to a 4-8 finish, the coordinators took a large share of the blame, at least in the blogosphere/media world where blame is thrown around like cotton balls.
Greg Davis and Phil Parker were in their first seasons as Iowa’s offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. So, yes, they were easy targets. Davis was mostly the target because play calling is elementary for us all (sarcasm) and, hey, let’s face it, Iowa’s offense was dreadful last season.
A year later, Iowa is 8-4 and headed to the Outback Bowl in sunny, warm Tampa, Fla., to face No. 14 LSU (9-3).
The offense remains a work in progress, but first-year quarterback Jake Rudock helped guide Iowa out of the rubble, of course with copious amounts of assistance from a rugged offensive line and a wide receiver and running back groups that really found their stride late in the season.
Iowa’s defense finished No. 7 in the nation in total defense, allowing 303.2 yards a game. That’s the highest national finish for an Iowa defense in the Ferentz era (Iowa has twice finished 10th, 2009 and 2004.)
Parker went from strictly coordinator duties in 2012 to coordinator and secondary coach in ’13. He also went from calling defenses in the press box to the sidelines. His players told him what they were seeing and it seemed to be a more streamlined set up.
It showed up as a more sound defense. The “know where your help is” mantra that the defense started in the spring carried through to team play throughout the season.
“Everything fits for a reason,” said Parker, who spent his first 13 years at Iowa as secondary coach. “Not to say we were perfect, but I think our kids understood it. When you made the adjustments, the kids would come off the field and they would know exactly what went on and give you the correct information, and so you could go back and coach them off that. That was the best thing for us.”
And, to this point, don’t dismiss the move from the press box to the field.
“I had a dilemma last year about going up,” Parker said. “I did it. I didn’t have a position at the time, so it was easier to do it then. I just felt it was more comfortable for me to be on the field. Get the feel of the game, see how the players are and see what we needed to do. It was a lot easier for me to get the adjustments quicker and see what our mentality or mindset was on the field.”
Iowa’s offense is working on the big plays. In four games against ranked opponents this season, Iowa’s offense generated 39 plays of 10-yards or more. That was No. 41 in the nation. Davis’ goal is nine plays of more than 12 yards rushing and 16 in the air. Iowa hit that number three times this season, with 10 against Michigan being the spotlight moment.
The offense made strides in 2013 here.
“We were closer, especially in big games, but it’s something we have to continue to work on and just be aware of,” Davis said.
When Iowa made the switch from Ken O’Keefe’s vertical passing design in ’12 to Davis’ more horizontal approach, big plays were the impossible dream. The onus now is on big plays to come out of plays being made by players than out of design.
“You want to be able to give the receivers a ball they can use after the catch,” Davis said. “You’re going to typically get the vertical game out of play-action and things like that, where you can draw the defense forward and then have a chance to go vertical.
“At the same time, you have to be able to make explosive plays with the drop-back game. A lot of times those come when you get people dispersed and you get the ball underneath in a catch-run situation.”
While the offense works on explosive plays, the defense made them happen in ’13. Parker called more blitzes and Iowa caused more mayhem. In 2012, Iowa had 53 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. This year, those numbers went to 73 and 20.
Parker believed he had the personnel to be more aggressive.
“It always starts with ‘Can you get there?” when you decide to bring the blitz, and, obviously, can you cover it?” Parker said. “The guys bought into it. I wasn’t going to call something that we couldn’t execute. I think they took it upon themselves to make sure they executed it in practice. That made me comfortable calling it in the game.”
Iowa maxed out on blitzes at Nebraska. Is this mentality here to stay?
“I think it depends on the personnel you have,” Parker said. “I think the three linebackers [James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey], we took advantage of their ability to run and get to the quarterback. That’s why we did it.”
One more factor in the defensive turnaround was the players video study in the offseason. This started last December. Several players, including Hitchens and defensive tackle Carl Davis, have noted how much they learned when they found the discipline to soak in video study.
“At the end of the year, we went after the quarterback a little more, but it came down to what they could execute,” Parker said. “That all came with an understanding of our base. I thought maybe a year ago, we struggled a little bit. We were young in some areas. We weren’t mature enough.
“It all started last December when guys started understanding the game of football. Until we had our base down, I wasn’t going to try to put a whole bunch of other stuff in. We were able to add stuff as we went along every week this year. Lining up in the same defense sometimes isn’t great, but you play faster. The things we added, that we could execute, that made me confident that was could go ahead and run some things.”
Both coordinators acknowledged new coaches helped move things ahead in 2013. Wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy was hired early in ’13. He worked with Davis at Texas for seven seasons. Jim Reid, who’s been coaching since 1973. came to Iowa after serving as Virginia’s defensive coordinator from 2010-12.
“It’s been good for me to throw ideas off of him and make suggestions,” Parker said. “I really enjoyed having Jim around. He’s done a great job, and he’s really done a great job with the two inside linebackers.”
The jobs of Iowa’s wide receivers changed significantly from 2011 to 2012. They were asked to make decisions after the ball was snapped. That clearly worked much better this season.
“He [Kennedy] always knew what the next step was going to be and what the next play that comes off this play was going to be,” Davis said.
“There are a lot of things we do where receivers are making decisions post-snap. There were a lot of times last year you all realized we were not on the same page. When you’re rolling, you don’t even realize they’re making decisions afterwards, it’s just happening. They were closer to that this year.”