IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa has started the season 7-0 for just the fifth time in program history. The rarity of it lent itself to comparisons.
Hawkeye Defensive Coordinator Phil Parker has worked with head coach Kirk Ferentz since he took over the program before the 1999 season. His history provided him with strong reference points.
Parker met with the media Wednesday here at the team’s performance center. He indicated that No. 12 Iowa reminded him of special teams of the past.
"This team has a chemistry, and togetherness that reminds me of some of the teams back in the early years — 2002, 2004 teams. They understand they’re in the room, they’re talking, and it’s really important to each other, and I think the chemistry of the team is probably the most important thing that’s really impressed me," he said.
The Hawkeyes won Big Ten Championships in ’02 and ’04. They haven’t captured one since then.
Parker’s defense has grown immensely since last season when offenses ran over and around it. Iowa reached this bye week ranked second in the Big Ten against the rush (74.1 YPG) and third in scoring defense (15.3 PPG). Last season, the Hawkeyes yielded 168.3 yards per game on the ground and 25.6 points.
"Well, everything goes back to leverage, and it’s not like we weren’t coaching it last year. We just weren’t as efficient as we are right now," Parker said. "I think we put a little bit more emphasis on it, do a lot more individual drills with maybe wide receivers, defensive backs, linebackers, tight ends.
"But we emphasize a little bit more, and they’ve done a good job, and guys running to the ball with proper leverage helps out."
Parker was asked to name his defensive MVP through seven games. He began to say middle linebacker Josey Jewell before pulling back and saying he couldn’t select one.
"I think there’s a collective group that’s really playing well. Obviously statistically Desmond King with how many interceptions he has and change of the game and getting the ball back is valuable, but there are a lot of guys out there playing well. I couldn’t pick one guy right now," he said.
Cole Fisher won the starting weak-side linebacker position in August. The fifth-year senior ranked seventh among Big Ten tacklers (8.7 TPG) through seven games.
"He’s a great athlete, and he’s a tough kid and very smart," Parker said.
Parker said Fisher, an Engineering major, has benefitted from the team switching to morning practices.
"He can go to class in the afternoon, has time to study and he has more time to prepare for football. That’s how I think he really got to the starting position," Parker said.
Here’s what else we heard from Parker on Wednesday:
-Redshirt Freshman Matt Nelson will see increased playing time at defensive end with the season-ending injury to Drew Ott, Parker said.
-Parker said the coaches decided to pull the redshirt off of true freshman linebacker Jack Hockaday on Saturday because they felt he could help the team in light of injuries.
"We started losing some guys, needed some guys on special teams, and figured that he could actually play on defense, too. We talked to him a little bit about it and said, hey, that’s a decision that we’re going to make, and he was all for it. Obviously he’s going to help us on special teams, and he’ll help us on the depth of linebackers," said Parker, who added that Hockaday is playing on the weak side defensively.
-Iowa has employed four defensive tackles for most of the season. Asked what the future of that position looked like, Parker said:
"(True freshman) Michael Slater is a guy that played a stand-up linebacker in high school, and he looks like he has a lot of potential, and we worked some of those guys today. We’re looking forward to seeing him coming on. I think he has a promising future," he said.
"But most of the guys are just so young right now, they’re just learning the position. But I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for us in the future."
-Parker said his defense is allowing more big plays than some of his more successful units from the past, including when he was defensive backs coach for coordinator Norm Parker.
"We have a total of five big runs over 15 yards, which is not good enough for us, and then we have 22 passes over 20 yards. Anytime that we’ve been a really good football team around here, we’re usually about 35 to 38 big plays a year, so we’re at seven games, we’re averaging right around 3.9 big plays a game. We want to be two big plays a game or less. So we’re a little bit high on that number right now," he said.