IOWA CITY – When Amani Hooker stepped closer to the line of scrimmage for the start of last week’s game at Minnesota, he wasn’t the only one moving forward.
The Iowa football program pushed ahead as well in some respects, remaining true to its core belief of putting the best 11 defenders on the field while adjusting to the reality of today’s game at the collegiate level.
Expect more of the same in Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Indiana, and in the games which follow.
With opposing offenses becoming more diverse, the Hawkeyes are matching that diversity with versatility.
Instead of a traditional lineup of four linemen, three linebackers, two safeties and two cornerbacks, Iowa moved Hooker into a “star’’ position against the Golden Gophers that is a bit of a hybrid between the traditional role of a safety and a linebacker.
Throughout much of the Hawkeyes’ 48-31 win, Hooker found himself playing man coverage against a slot receiver.
A bit of a twist on traditional nickel and dime packages which insert more defensive backs in passing situations, the sub package that included safeties Jake Gervase and Geno Stone is something Iowa has been working on since the preseason.
In some respects, it’s traditional Iowa, playing to the strengths of available personnel.
In other regards, it’s a move being made to counter the quickness the Hawkeyes are encountering more frequently on the other side of the ball as offenses line up with a single tight end and three or more receivers.
“You just try to get your best 11 guys on the field at all times, plus you play the situation,’’ Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s kind of a little bit of a mix of both. The fact that Geno has been playing pretty well and doing some good things on special teams and has played well on defense when called upon, we felt like that gave us an option.’’
A shortage of linebackers – something that will continue against the Hoosiers with Nick Niemann and Jack Hockaday sidelined by injury and Amani Jones sitting out the first half after being called for targeting against the Golden Gophers – facilitated the decision to push forward with the shift.
Coaches began considering their personnel options early in fall camp.
“I think the big thing is that we have the personnel to do it now,’’ Hooker said. “We have the guys on the back end who can play different positions. Look at Geno Stone, he can be there at outside linebacker as well or you might see (Michael) Ojemudia down there, too. We just have a lot of guys who can play different positions.’’
Ojemudia sees the flexibility as something Iowa can use match-up by match-up as it moves deeper into its schedule.
“It’s another tool we have at our disposal, something we can use to help us compete,’’ Ojemudia said. “I think it’s something that can help make a difference for us.’’
Iowa’s defense has been holding its own, building on the strength of an eight-player rotation on the line that has the Hawkeyes rated among national defensive leaders as a team this week.
In its 4-1 start, Iowa ranks fourth nationally in total defense, allowing 272.4 yards per game, and is fifth nationally in rushing defense while giving up 84.4 yards per game.
The Hawkeyes are also 13th in the country in scoring defense, surrendering 16.6 points per game.
“We’re doing a lot of good things on defense, but there are more tests out there for us,’’ Hooker said. “We have to be ready to go each week.’’
The Minnesota game was the first in a string of five straight where Iowa will deal with offenses that don’t hesitate to spread things out, a look the Hawkeyes will face again even later in the season against Illinois as well.
Developing versatile looks to work against the diversity is something Ferentz sees as a positive.
“I think we’re in a good situation right now,’’ Ferentz said. “… It gives you some options in terms of what to do when you play teams that play with one tight end and three receivers or more. I think the more versatile you can be, the better off you are. That’s something we haven’t done a lot of, quite frankly.’’
But thanks to a versatile group of defenders, that is becoming a part of the Hawkeyes’ way of doing defense.
“It’s hard in a sense because you are not necessarily playing in a rhythm by playing at the same spot, but at the same time, I think it’s going to help our defense moving forward,’’ Gervase said. “Getting guys moving around, playing different spots, it’s something that help us as a defense.’’
It’s a step forward, something Hooker was more than willing to take last week.
“I’m anxious to see how good we can become,’’ Hooker said.