5 burning defensive questions for the Iowa Hawkeyes heading into spring football

Basketball might have center stage for the moment with March Madness in full swing inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but that also means that spring football is just days away.

Iowa was sensational defensively in 2022. The Hawkeyes surrendered just 270.8 yards per game, ranking second nationally. Iowa also rated second in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 13.3 points per game.

The most pressing questions this spring will be how Iowa handles the departures of several key defensive cogs. Still, there’s other interesting storylines with Phil Parker’s unit.

Let’s take a deeper dive before spring football gets underway. What are five key questions for the Hawkeye defense?

How does Iowa handle losing the Butkus?

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Jack Campbell was fabulous the past two seasons in Iowa City. He racked up a combined 271 tackles over the course of the last two years. Campbell added 11 passes defensed, nine tackles for loss, four interceptions, a pair of sacks and one defensive touchdown.

In other words, there is all sorts of production that Campbell provided to the Hawkeye defense. For his efforts, he was named the Nagurski-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten Linebacker of the Year. The 6-foot-5, 249 pound linebacker also became the first in program history to be named the Butkus Award winner. That’s given out annually to the country’s top linebacker.

While the production speaks for itself, Campbell’s leadership will be greatly missed as well. He was a steadying force during Iowa’s rocky 3-4 start to last season. Who steps into that leadership role?

Can Iowa stay elite at linebacker?

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Leadership skills aside, what does replacing the production at linebacker look like for Iowa? Along with Campbell, Iowa is set to replace Seth Benson as well. The 6-foot-1, 205 pound backer registered 200 tackles and 10 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, three sacks and a pair of interceptions in the last two seasons. Plus, Jestin Jacobs opted to transfer to Oregon. That’s a lot to replace.

Iowa did its due diligence, though. The Hawkeyes won a big-time transfer portal war, bringing in All-ACC linebacker Nick Jackson. Jackson totaled 354 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and eight pass breakups during his time with Virginia.

The 2022 season saw him tally 104 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and his career high in sacks with five. His 10.4 tackles per game led the ACC and was ninth in the nation.

It’s also go time for Jay Higgins. The 6-foot-2, 229 pound Indianapolis native has been biding his time and is ready for the spotlight. He finished with 39 tackles last season. Kyler Fisher is another name to watch at backer.

Is the leader Cooper DeJean? What does his next step look like?

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Cooper DeJean is a superstar. The junior cornerback returned three interceptions for touchdowns to set a new single-season program record. That also ties the Hawkeyes’ career interception returns for scores, joining Riley Moss, Desmond King and Tom Knight in that distinction.

Speaking of leaders, many will be looking in DeJean’s direction in that regard. He’s this defense’s best player now. In addition to his interception returns for touchdowns, DeJean also amassed the third-most tackles for the Hawkeyes with 75. Sprinkle in eight pass breakups, three tackles for loss and two more interceptions and you have a first-team All-Big Ten season.

That’s a tough encore act to deliver and exceed upon. DeJean probably doesn’t eclipse those interception totals as teams opt to look a different direction instead. But, as this defense’s top playmaker, the Odebolt, Iowa, native will still get his in spots. Does he morph into the defense’s primary leader, though? That’s an interesting question for the spring.

Can Xavier Nwankpa follow Cooper's career arc?


Remember, Cooper DeJean was just a sophomore last season. Enter Xavier Nwankpa. It didn’t take long at all for the former five-star signee to showcase the kind of talent that had Iowa fans salivating for him to quickly earn playing time.

In the TransPerfect Music City Bowl shutout of Kentucky, Nwankpa joined DeJean in the pick-six column, picking off an overthrow from Destin Wade and racing 51 yards the other way for the score. As expected, the 6-foot-2, 210 pound defensive back looked like a natural with the football in his hands after the pick.

Just how high can he soar in 2023? With Kaevon Merriweather opting out of the Music City Bowl, that opened the door for Nwankpa’s first career start. He made the most of it, finishing with eight tackles and a pair of pass breakups as well.

Nwankpa figures to start alongside Quinn Schulte at safety. That slots Sebastian Castro in over at CASH. Toss Jermari Harris opposite Cooper DeJean at corner and Iowa looks to have as nasty a defensive backfield as ever.

Can Aaron Graves take a leap forward?

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It just feels like Aaron Graves is going to be a serious factor on this 2023 defensive line, doesn’t it? Iowa got plenty of good news up front with the returns of Joe Evans and Noah Shannon. Those returns mean stability for the Hawks’ defensive line.

Now, who can replace some of that Lukas Van Ness production? There’s a good chance it’s Aaron Graves. The 6-foot-4, 271 pound sophomore defensive lineman from Dayton, Iowa, finished with 15 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks.

That was on 214 total snaps per Pro Football Focus. Graves’ 214 snaps ranked eighth among Iowa’s defensive line rotation. Those snap count numbers should skyrocket with Van Ness and John Waggoner moving on. That means the production for the four-star signee will as well.

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Story originally appeared on Hawkeyes Wire