IOWA CITY, Iowa
Iowa’s defense was one of the best in the nation at forcing turnovers and turning them into points.
With seven returning starters on this side of the ball, the Hawkeyes look set to build on what they’ve accomplished while leading the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Coach Kirk Ferentz said the defense is far from proven, especially since Riley Moss is the only returning high school starter.
“Before we announce we’re ready to move into defense,” Ferentz said, “we still have some work to do.”
The Hawkeyes, who went 10-4 overall and 7-2 in the Big Ten to win the Western Division, led the nation with 25 interceptions. They ranked third with 30 forced turnovers and seventh with four defensive touchdowns.
“It sounds simple enough, but it’s hard to do,” said center linebacker Jack Campbell, who led the nation with 143 tackles. “When you’re doing your job, you’re in the right place, and then when the opportunities arise, you’re going to make plays.
Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs return to linebacker. The defensive line includes starters John Wagoner, Logan Lee and Noah Shannon. Also returning are linemen Joe Evans and Lukas Van Ness, who each had seven sacks.
“From a quarterback perspective, one of the things they do really well is they disguise their coverage better than any opposing team I’ve played with in my two years,” said Spencer Petras. “So that forces a quarterback to have really disciplined eyes. They’re not going to show you what they’re doing. They will hold out until the last possible second.
Quinn Schulte and Kaevon Merriweather are expected to start at safety points, with Jermari Harris the leading candidate to play left cornerback. Cooper DeJean, who saw some playing time late in the season, is expected to take over Iowa’s “Cash” position, a hybrid safety linebacker position the Hawkeyes have used for the past two seasons.
Iowa High School called itself “The Doughboys” last fall because of how that unit has taken in the turnovers.
“We’re keeping ‘The Doughboys,’ it’s gonna keep rolling,” Moss said.
Logan Jones is No. 1 on the depth chart at center, replacing All-American Tyler Linderbaum.
As Linderbaum did early in his career, Jones steps off the defensive line. Jones, a sophomore, contacted Linderbaum, a first-round draft pick of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, for advice.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Jones said. “(Offensive line coach George Barnett) said go out there and play, let your talent come naturally. And that’s what I try to do.
Ferentz expects Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams (unrelated) to be the running back tandem to succeed Tyler Goodson, who declared for the NFL Draft after rushing for 1,151 yards.
Gavin Williams was injured at the start of fall camp, so Leshon Williams got most of the carries.
“Once you get past Gavin and Leshon, we have no experience,” Ferentz said.
Ferentz declared the quarterbacks competition “open” after last season. Petras struggled with consistency. He started 11 games and threw for 1,880 yards, but he had 10 touchdown passes against nine interceptions and completed just 57.3% of his attempts.
Alex Padilla, who got three starts when Petras was injured late in the season, is No. 2 on the depth chart.
Petras went to Manning Passing Academy over the summer, and Ferentz is loving what he’s seen from him so far at fall camp.
The Big Ten schedule includes an Oct. 1 home game against Michigan in a rematch of last season’s conference championship game, which the Wolverines won 42-3. Iowa, which is just outside the preseason AP Top 25 rankings, is also playing at Ohio State for the first time since 2013.
The opener is Sept. 3 at home against South Dakota State, with the Cy-Hawk game against Iowa State next week in Iowa City.
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