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Iowa Fall Camp Buzz – Defense and Special Teams

Iowa Fall Camp

Iowa fall camp has officially reached the halfway point. Kickoff inside Kinnick Stadium is less than three weeks away, and the Hawkeyes are gearing up for their first game against South Dakota State. At the annual media availability day on Friday, Kirk Ferentz addressed how his team is progressing through fall camp. The offense has taken great strides thus far with tangible improvements in nearly every category. Defensively, the team has an opportunity to be a better version of last year’s squad. Despite the loss of four of their top defenders, Phil Parker’s unit will have one of the top linebacker groups in the nation and experience up front.

The Defensive Front

The only departure from the 2021 team at defensive line was Zach VanValkenburg. His veteran presence last season helped develop a younger group in preparation for this year.  Lukas Van Ness stood out in the spring game, and Ferentz noted that he has been ascending this Fall. 

One of Iowa’s more highly-touted guys in its 2022 class was Aaron Graves at defensive line. When asked about his performance during Iowa fall camp, Ferentz said he looks really good and called him an impressive football player. After the Kids Day scrimmage on Saturday, Ferentz was asked about a potential redshirt for Graves. He replied that it would be “stupid” on their part right now. He added that he belongs on the field with the older guys. This comment speaks volumes as to how impressive the former four-star recruit has been for Iowa. It’s not typical for a true freshman to see the field much at defensive line for the Hawkeyes, but Graves is not a typical player. He was the number two player in Iowa and 18th in the nation at his position out of high school. There’s incredible upside with Graves. He’ll be on the field this fall for the Hawkeyes.

The Linebackers

At Spring practice, all three of Iowa’s starting linebackers did not play. Injuries kept them sidelined for the Spring game, but their absence wasn’t all negative. The starting group is led by Jack Campbell who had 143 tackles last season. However, the opportunity for the younger players at linebacker gave the coaches a great look at the depth of the position. 

Behind the three starters, the group is relatively inexperienced. During the Kids Day scrimmage, Karson Sharar played with the two’s along with Jay Higgins. Kyler Fisher is listed as the second-string player on the depth chart but was out for the scrimmage. This gave Sharar the opportunity, and he recorded an interception return for touchdown. The backups are getting good reps at all the linebacker positions, putting them in a great position to step in when needed throughout the season. 

The Secondary

Cooper DeJean is one of the younger guys making noise thus far during fall camp. Out of high school, DeJean played almost every position and was a highly impressive recruit. Entering his sophomore season at Iowa, the team hasn’t settled on his main position yet. His versatility on defense has been valuable, as he is getting time at CASH, cornerback, and safety. Ferentz commented that he is “just so raw.” The talent is there, and he can really be an asset wherever he settles in. It’s likely that DeJean will land at the CASH position this fall, taking over for the fourth round draft pick, Dane Belton.

Xavier Nwankpa is another name that everyone is keeping a close eye on during Iowa Fall camp. The former five-star made a tremendous leaping interception during the Kids Day scrimmage on Saturday. His route anticipation and ball tracking skills are quite impressive for a first-year player. He has been getting reps at CASH, strong, and free safety this fall, playing well at each position. Nwankpa will likely see the field a good amount, either on special teams or defense.

Special Teams

Return Game

The loss of Charlie Jones to the transfer portal following Spring practice was a big blow to the return game for Iowa. Jones earned First Team All-Big Ten honors for his return duties last season. He has moved on to Purdue, and that leaves the Hawkeyes with new options at return man. At media day on Friday, Ferentz mentioned that there are three guys competing for that role, Riley Moss, Arland Bruce IV, and DeJean. Each of those three guys has great speed and the ability to be effective in the return game. It will be big shoes to fill in the absence of Jones, but Iowa will be in good hands finishing fall camp.

Place Kicker

The Hawkeyes have seemingly had one of the nation’s best place kickers every year for the last handful of seasons. Last year it was Caleb Shudak, who was a virtual lock from inside 50 yards. He has moved on to the next level, leaving a door open for place kicker this season. At the Spring game, the kickers were less than impressive. There were inconsistencies and questions as to who the frontrunner was at the position. Ferentz said on Friday that both of their guys are still competing for the position. 

On Saturday at the Kids Day scrimmage, the place kickers were 15 of 15 on the day. Neither Aaron Blom nor Drew Stevens missed a kick and both hit from 53 yards during the scrimmage. Immense improvements have been made since the spring. Iowa leans on its kicking game as a part of its game plan, and things are trending in the right direction. DeJean is working as the placeholder for field goals, adding another facet of versatility.

The Takeaways

On Friday’s media day, Ferentz emphasized how defense is the one thing that makes the Big Ten different compared to other conferences. Having teams in the conference that “believe in defense” is one of the stand-out factors of the Big Ten, he said. The Hawkeyes have one of those top defenses year-in and year-out. There’s even a sense that this year’s defense could be one of Parker’s best he’s ever had at Iowa. 

On special teams, coordinator LeVar Woods is putting together another strong unit. The kicking game has seen great improvements over just the summer. The options at return man are intriguing as well, as three of the team’s best playmakers are working at the position. In games of field position, special teams are crucial. The Hawkeyes are one of those teams that thrive in those kinds of matchups because of their discipline on special teams. This year’s group will continue that trend. 

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