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Expecting Iowa’s defense to improve upon what that unit accomplished in 2021 might seem like a tall task at first glance. After all, the Hawkeyes finished No. 13 nationally in scoring defense, surrendering just 19.2 points per game.
Iowa also ranked No. 17 in total defense and reeled in an FBS-best 25 interceptions. Topping all of that would be quite the feat for Hawkeye defensive coordinator Phil Parker and his group.
Plus, the Hawkeyes are set to replace a pair of key cogs on the back end defensively in cornerback Matt Hankins and safety Jack Koerner. Then, there’s fellow starters in defensive end Zach VanValkenburg and CASH Dane Belton that need replacing.
Those four players combined for 130 career starts. Last season alone, that group accounted for 237 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 15 pass breakups, 11 quarterback hurries, 10 interceptions and 5.5 sacks.
Still, Iowa returns plenty of firepower defensively. Up front, the Hawkeyes bring back Yahya Black, Deontae Craig, Joe Evans, Logan Lee, Lukas Van Ness, Noah Shannon and John Waggoner. In his first summer availability, Lee was already raving about Iowa’s defensive line depth.
In the secondary, Sporting News tabbed cornerback Riley Moss as a first-team preseason All-America selection. It’s the third different media outlet to do so. There’s plenty of optimism surrounding what fellow corners Cooper DeJean, Jermari Harris and Terry Roberts can bring to the table.
Then, at safety, Sebastian Castro, Kaevon Merriweather, Jaxon Rexroth and Quinn Schulte all represent reliable options. Five-star freshman defensive back Xavier Nwankpa also figures to have his imprints on this defense sooner rather than later.
And, of course, there’s the linebackers. Senior Jack Campbell has been getting plenty of preseason love after leading the country with 143 tackles last season. He joins Moss as a preseason first-team All-America selection by Sporting News, Athlon Sports and Phil Steele.
It’s for those reasons that returning weak side linebacker Seth Benson believes defensive improvement could in fact be a reality for the Hawkeyes in 2022.
“Yeah, I think so. Obviously, just got to keep pushing ourselves. Communication. It comes down to communication and executing everything, so just continue to push ourselves, not set limits for ourselves and just keep going upwards,” Benson said with HawkeyeReport‘s Tom Kakert.
While Campbell has deservingly received plenty of preseason recognition, Benson registered 105 tackles, eight quarterback hurries, 5.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, two sacks, and in interception in his own right in 2021.
Iowa also has Jestin Jacobs back. The 6-foot-4, 238 pound Englewood, Ohio, native tallied 53 tackles, a pair of quarterback hurries, two sacks, one forced fumble, one interception and 0.5 sack last season.
“Yeah, just super excited, ready to just get things rolling and start getting back out there and start playing again. Besides the fact of the on-field stuff, it’s just a great group to be with every day and work with. Even past Jack and Jestin, all those guys, Kyler (Fisher), Jay (Higgins), Logan Klemp, just down the list. Just a great group of guys to be with that push each other and know the ultimate goal that we’re trying to get to,” Benson said.
Jacobs echoed Benson’s optimism for Iowa’s defense entering 2022 with Hawk Central‘s Chad Leistikow.
“I’m very optimistic. Just because I’m seeing every day what we’re doing, how we’re putting in our work, how we’re focusing on the little things each and every day. It definitely leaves me with confidence in our defense knowing that each and every day we’re working to get better,” Jacobs said.
As the architect of Iowa’s defense, Parker gets a lion’s share of the credit. But don’t forget about the contributions from linebackers coach Seth Wallace.
“It is one of the most rewarding things, one of the most challenging days, but one of the best men I’ve been able to meet and be coached by and I’d say one of the best coaches I’ve ever been a part of as well. Each and every day he’s going to come in and he’s going to push you to your absolute best. Even if you make a good play, he’s always going to be critical on you, because you can make another good play and you can do it even better.
“He just knows how to get me going. He knows how to push me to the best. He knows how to critique me. To my fundamentals, to my effort. Every single thing. He’s one of the first coaches here and always one of the last coaches to leave just because he’s going to spend the same time on each and every one of us. And one of the most detailed guys. I could go on and on and on,” Benson said of Wallace.
Parker and Wallace have ingrained selflessness within the Hawkeyes’ defenders as well. It’s something Jacobs admits he didn’t arrive in Iowa City with. Or, at least not to the degree he exhibits while manning the CASH position today.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t say it always has been, but I would definitely say it made me grow as a person and it made me grow into that role. Knowing that sacrificing for the betterment of the team is going to make us all better in the end. It’s not about yourself. At the end of the day, you’re playing alongside 10 of your brothers and each play somebody’s relying on you to do your job. That took me a little bit of time to learn and I definitely appreciate that about our defense,” Jacobs said.
Selfless and talented. Defining characteristics of this Iowa defense heading into fall camp, and two reasons why eclipsing 2021 just might be possible.
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