Iowa looks to rebuild inconsistent defense
For all the statistics that proved how good Iowa's defense was last season, there was one number the Hawkeyes couldn't shake.
That's how many games Iowa lost in 2010 on a late touchdown in the fourth quarter, knocking the Hawkeyes from the Top 10 in August to the middle of the Big Ten pack by December. They wound up 8-5.
Iowa has tried to re-establish its finishing touch this spring despite a grueling offseason workout that sent 13 players to the hospital and set a somber backdrop for practices that conclude Saturday with an open workout at Kinnick Stadium.
But the Hawkeyes must first replace the core of a defense that allowed just 17 points a game last season despite its late struggles. Iowa had six defensive players earn first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors and five of them won't be back.
''I do think we'll be fairly good. I just question when,'' Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker said. ''We have some young guys and some things to clean up. But we have young, aggressive guys coming back, and all that seems to be going pretty good.''
The Hawkeyes must replace a number of players that seem nearly irreplaceable, such as defensive end Adrian Clayborn and safety Tyler Sash. But the hope has been building for at least a year that middle linebacker James Morris would be ready to handle a prominent role by next fall.
According to Parker, Morris might already be there.
Morris, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound sophomore, was shoved into a starting role way ahead of schedule in 2010 when injuries devastated Iowa's linebackers. Morris handled himself well for a true freshman, and Parker on Wednesday raved about Morris's approach since the season ended last December with a win over Missouri in the Insight Bowl.
''He picked up right where he left off last year, and I think he's really going to be good. He's sort of got better during the winter without even practicing,'' Parker said. ''He's sort of the all-American boy. He works hard and studies hard. He just does everything right.''
Iowa's replacement for Sash at free safety could be sophomore Tanner Miller, but he has been out this spring with a shoulder injury. The Hawkeyes responded by moving emerging cornerback Micah Hyde to free safety.
Hyde showed impressive playmaking skills last season, most notably in a long fourth-quarter interception return off Missouri's Blaine Gabbert that gave the Hawkeyes a 27-24 win.
Hyde's move could be temporary if Miller is healthy by August. But the coaching staff believes the experience will only help Hyde in 2011.
''Hyde looks good back there, and I do think it's good for him whether he ends up back there or moves back to corner,'' Parker said.
The defensive line has a ways to go, but tackle Mike Daniels forced his way into playing time a year ago and is considered among the strongest players Iowa has had in recent memory. End Broderick Binns, now a senior, has plenty of experience.
Redshirt freshman Carl Davis has emerged as a potential starter at tackle in spring ball, and at 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds gives the Hawkeyes some serious size inside.
Senior LeBron Daniel has emerged as the leader to start at the end spot opposite Binns.
''They can move, they use their hands, they like to play football,'' Parker said about the defensive line. ''Clayborn was such a good leader, that that part of the game you don't know who's going to take over ... you'll never know that until next season.''
Whether Iowa's rebuilt defense can finish games won't be known until the fall. But in Parker, the Hawkeyes might already have the most important piece of the puzzle back.
His battle with diabetes cost him a foot and much of last season, but the 69-year-old's insight could prove crucial in those late-game moments the Hawkeyes couldn't handle a year ago.
''He's the model, the example of the toughness that we want to have in every aspect of our program,'' offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe said. ''He sees stuff. He knows football and he understands the players.''