Championships aren’t won in the Big Ten without quality defensive play, and the Iowa Hawkeyes of 2015 are a perfect example of that. However, this is all about the 2016 season and just because 2015 was a success on defense doesn’t mean this season will be.
It is going to be hard to duplicate the results of 2015 to be sure, but it is going to be hard to ignore the return of Iowa’s first individual national award winner since Alex Karras in 1957. Of course, we’re talking about star cornerback Desmond King.
He’ll be the lynchpin of the Hawkeyes defense in 2016, but is there more to the team than just King? Let’s take a look at the defense as a whole, shall we.
Having Drew Ott’s appeal for an extra season of eligibility denied really hurts the defense in 2016, as few players were as disruptive as Ott was when healthy. Moving on from him won’t be easy for a defensive line that also loses third team All-Big Ten Nate Meier and two backups.
That said, this group does have some good experience on their side. Jaleel Johnson, a senior defensive tackle, should be the anchor of this group and could the next explosive player on the line after putting up 3.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and 45 tackles as a junior. Next to him is likely junior Nathan Bazata, who had a very solid sophomore season in 2015 and could be a breakout candidate for a place on an All-Big Ten team.
The jobs of replacing Meier and Ott will go to sophomores Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson. Hesse played in 14 games as a linebacker last season, but will move to the line this year after bulking up to 250 pounds and should be counted on as a pass rushing specialist. Meanwhile, Nelson played in 13 games of limited action as a freshman and did record 0.5 of a sack on the year.
Depth is going to be youthful in 2016, with freshmen like Anthony Nelson, Garret Jansen and Brady Reiff all in the mix for the two-deep at defensive end alone. There’s also freshman Michael Slater in the two-deep at defensive tackle.
Health will be key to success along the defensive line until some of the talented youngsters get comfortable with the college game.
Overlooking this group in favor of what is behind them is a big mistake, especially with the return of junior Josey Jewell in the middle. His team-best 126 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss earned him second team All-Big Ten honors in 2015, and it will be very interesting to see how he responds to the increased attention.
Part of that concern is because Jewell loses the experience of a player like Cole Fisher next to him. Replacing Fisher is sophomore Aaron Mends, who is a converted running back that saw just four games of action last season. However, coaches raved about his work in transition to linebacker this spring.
Helping Jewell will be the return of Mends opposite at linebacker and fellow junior, Ben Niemann. Overall, this is a pretty solid starting group, and the depth isn’t bad with the likes of junior Bow Bower outside and impressive redshirt freshman Angelo Garbutt up the middle.
No cornerback tandem is better on paper in the Big Ten heading in to 2016 than that of Iowa’s duo of Desmond King and Greg Mabin. King is the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner, having nabbed eight interceptions, 13 passes broken up and 72 tackles on defense alone.
Mabin comes in to the season as the overlooked member of Iowa’s defense, but he was very good last season too. He grabbed two interceptions, eight passes broken up, forced a fumble and had 54 tackles. Few cornerback duos were as impressive against the pass nationally, let alone inside the Big Ten.
Expect teams to struggle to throw against that duo, but good luck also beating the safeties in this group. Junior Miles Taylor was sixth on the team in tackles last season (69) and can play up on the line of scrimmage when needed. He is joined at safety by sophomore Brandon Snyder, who has big shoes to fill in replacing third team All-Big Ten safety Jordan Lomax.
Our Projected Starters
DE: Parker Hesse, So.
DT: Nathan Bazata, Jr.
DT: Jaleel Johnson, Sr.
DE: Matt Nelson, So.
OLB: Aaron Mends, So.
MLB: Josey Jewell, Jr.
OLB: Ben Niemann, Jr.
CB: Desmond King, Sr.
FS: Brandon Synder, So.
SS: Miles Taylor, Jr.
CB: Greg Mabin, Sr.