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Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 18, 2018

Iowa D-backs provide experience

Growing pains were last year for projected starters
By By Marc Morehouse, The Gazette | Jun 12, 2018
Photo by: The Gazette Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Jake Gervase (30) with an interception against Boston College in the first quarter of the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27, 2017, at Yankee Stadium in New York City.

The first rule of Iowa defense is stop the run, but Iowa wants to defend space and with more speed on the field.

In an era of spread offenses, defenses also must stop the pass.

It’s June. No need for conclusions, not yet anyway.

This might simply boil down to finding the best 11 and morphing them into what you need for a given situation.

Here’s a look at Iowa’s defensive backfield:

Free Safety

The Dude: Jake Gervase

The Guys: Brandon Snyder, Julius Brents

The Plan: Gervase had a bad game at Iowa State last season and lost his starting job. After Snyder suffered his second ACL tear against Illinois, Gervase was back to full-time and he was much improved.

Gervase didn’t need an extreme makeover. He tightened up alignments and put a tighter focus on where he was on the field. His confidence grew and Gervase was playing his best football at the end of the season. In the Pinstripe Bowl, Gervase had eight tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception.

Snyder is going to get healthy very soon. He tore the ACL in his left knee for the first time in spring 2017. He did it again in his only appearance of the season Oct. 7 against Illinois. Snyder returned an interception 89 yards for a score in the game.

Snyder’s knee has progressed and he’s definitely in the plans.

“I think it will be good for us to have the capability to have two deep at safety, and it might give us a little bit more flexibility on some of our other packages that we want to use,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.

Strong Safety

The Dude: Amani Hooker

The Guys: Geno Stone, Dallas Craddieth

The Plan: Hooker isn’t a finished player, but there’s no arguing he kept climbing the ladder in his first season as a starter.

The Ohio State pick-six on the first play of the game is the big highlight. Hooker picked off OSU’s J.T. Barrett and returned it 30 yards for a TD. Iowa rode that start to a 55-24 victory in what maybe was the most talked about result in college football in 2017.

Hooker, a junior, has arrived. He missed three games with a bruised knee, but rebounded with a Pinstripe Bowl performance that included 12 tackles, two that stopped what would’ve been sure touchdowns.

Stone didn’t play a ton until the end of 2017. Then, it felt like he led the Hawkeyes in impact per snap. Stone had an interception and 12 tackles in very little playing time. Stone is probably safety No. 4 for the Hawkeyes. It’s a quality group that, as Parker said, should give Iowa options in personnel packages. It also might get better with a group of quality incoming freshmen.


The Dude: Matt Hankins

The Guys: Trey Creamer, D.J. Johnson, Cedric Boswell

The Plan: During his recruitment, Hankins got a late offer from Michigan, said no thanks and showed up in Iowa City last fall looking for playing time. He faced a stacked deck. Hankins worked his way into nickel packages and then in the third quarter against Purdue, Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia were burned for long plays and the Boilermakers swooped up all of the momentum. Hankins was the third corner inserted into the game. He stopped the bleeding and he kept the job.

Creamer was one of Iowa’s more noticeable defensive backups in the spring game. He was very active as a tackler and held his ground in coverage. Johnson is a 3-star Rivals signee who had offers from Notre Dame and LSU. He could be the 2018 Matt Hankins.

The Dude: Michael Ojemudia

The Guys: Manny Rugamba, Josh Turner

The Plan: Of course, you remember Josh Jackson. Unforgettable 2017 and maybe the best single season for an Iowa defensive back ever. Wait, did Jackson or 2015 Desmond King have the best Iowa defensive back season ever? Pretty good, fun debate.

Jackson started all 13 games at one corner spot. Three players started on the other side: Ojemudia, Rugamba and Hankins.

Ojemudia had a tough first quarter at Michigan State. He was one-on-one with wide receiver Felton Davis. On the first drive of the game, Davis caught four passes, including a 31-yarder and a 22-yard TD. Davis is 6-foot-4, 200. That was Ojemudia’s first start since the opener, and the Spartans went right at him.

Review the film and grow. Ojemudia made one more start and saw plenty of time in nickel/dime. Maybe he hangs onto this.

Rugamba probably is at a career crossroads. After putting up some impressive moments as a true freshman in 2016, Rugamba started 2017 with a one-game suspension and he suffered an ankle injury. And then the Purdue third quarter happened and that opened the door for Hankins.

The ball is in Rugamba’s court.

“I think it’s a challenge as a true freshman to come in and play against Michigan and having a great year, and a lot of people patting you on the back, and I think maybe he might have lost his focus a little bit, not as detailed, maybe not as much of a time commitment,” Parker said. “I’m not really sure. But you’re right, up and down a little bit. But I thought for this spring, at times I think he’s been really good, and he’s working his tail off.

“His job is to go and prove that he’s a starter, and obviously he’s a starter at nickel, but he wants to be a starter in regular base defense.”

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