IOWA CITY – The more things change, the more they remain the same in Phil Parker’s world.
While spring has been a time of experimentation, the Hawkeye defensive coordinator said Tuesday one thing remains a constant no matter how Iowa aligns its personnel.
“We’re running the same defense,’’ Parker said. “… Our philosophy of what we are doing structure-wise hasn’t really changed. Our thoughts of how we are attacking somebody or how we are trying to defend somebody, those haven’t changed.’’
Parker’s point is that whether Iowa opts to put a fifth defensive back in its “cash’’ position or chooses to insert a linebacker into a spot normally filled by a defensive end, the expectations remain unchanged aren’t all that different from what the Hawkeyes have used in the past.
“Are you calling the right things? Are you playing the right coverages? Are you doing the right things?’’ Parker said. “As long as everybody understands what we’re doing and they can execute it, it’s okay.’’
Parker concedes that the proliferation of spread offensive attacks have changed the way teams defend, among the reasons Amani Hooker shifted into hybrid defensive back/linebacker role he filled over the final two thirds of the 2018 season for Iowa.
He said the decision to implement the look that made a difference in the Hawkeyes’ 9-4 season wasn’t a difficult move at all given the way the game has evolved.
“We’ve been cheating the system for a while,’’ Parker said, pointing to the work and athletic ability of Christian Kirksey and Ben Niemann in recent seasons. “We were getting away with some guys, but those were our best guys to put on the field.’’
Hooker provided the same abilities.
“I figured if we put a guy there who had a little more skill and can move a little better, he can help us out in the passing game when they are trying to attack us there,’’ Parker said. “To me, it wasn’t much of a decision. It was time to move forward on that.’’
Iowa has spent the spring working to dissect who will move into the “cash’’ spot.
D.J. Johnson, Matt Hankins, Michael Ojemudia and Julius Brents have all spent time at the position and while Hooker shifted over from a safety position, Parker suggested that cornerbacks may be better suited for the role.
“Anybody that plays a corner, they have a chance to go down there, play inside,’’ Parker said. “It’s a lot of the same techniques that we’re teaching to the outside.’’
The same principles apply as Hawkeye coaches flirt with a three-player defensive front, replacing a lineman with a linebacker.
Before suffering an ankle injury that has sidelined him for the final weeks of spring drills, senior Amani Jones was getting a look at that position.
Parker said in the practices since, Barrington Wade, Kristian Welch, Dillon Doyle and Joe Evans have been inserted into that stand-up spot.
“Usually, it’s almost like playing the Leo linebacker. Sometimes you’re going to play on a tight end and sometimes, you’re going to be playing on an offensive tackle,’’ Parker said. “What we’re looking for is some toughness and guys that have a lot of energy and effort. I think our guys have been doing a good job.’’
He said what they are being asked to do doesn’t vary that much from what Iowa expected out of Parker Hesse when he shifted from a linebacker to defensive end position late in the 2014 season as he redshirted during his freshman year.
“He was a big-sized linebacker when he first got here, too,’’ Parker said. “It’s all about the way you can put guys in a certain position where they are not always going to be taking on the power-O with a double team on a tackle and a guard.’’
The ability of the player to work against a tight end or an open end is what Iowa coaches are looking for at the position.
“It gives them a little more freedom and it’s not like they are going to be pounding all the time,’’ Parker said. “It’s very similar to what sometimes an outside backer would do.’’
Those similarities have allowed the experimentation to work.
Parker said Iowa defenders have been shuffled between positions more this spring than at any time in his 21 seasons with the program, working to gain knowledge with hopes that more players will understand the concepts that are at the root of what Iowa wants to accomplish.
“It’s always been a chess-match game,’’ Parker said, “but after a while it’s still 11 guys on 11 guys.’’