Scoring D: 23ppg (33rd, 7th)
Iowa's defense may have fared better had it been supported the way most Iowa defenses are. The Hawkeye offense was woeful, ranking near the bottom of the conference in basically everything. It didn't convert third downs (36%, 89th nationally) or red zone chances (79%, 83rd). On top of that, the Iowa special teams unit didn't do the defense many favors either. The Hawkeyes posted bad net punting numbers (34.4 net ypp) which was next to last in the conference and 104th in the country.
Given the circumstances, Iowa's defense spent a lot of time just trying to keep its head above water, and that isn't the kind of game that a Kirk Ferentz defense is designed to win. Still, Iowa's offense wasn't great in 2009 when the team won 11 games, and the most productive offense Iowa has seen in four years was the 2010 unit on the 8-5 squad.
So where were the breakdowns? It started with the rush defense, and the defensive line in general. Senior defensive end Joe Gaglione had a solid season (51 tackles/9.0 TFL/5.0 sacks) but senior Steve Bigach wasn't very productive. Both are gone in 2013 and the rest of the line is basically a crapshoot.
Sophomores Darian Cooper and Louis Trinca-Pasat have perhaps the most upside of the bunch and seem in line to claim two of the starting spots. Dominic Alvis is the elder statesman of the group and will at least be in the rotation, but he isn't ever going to be much more than just a guy. Between those three players, Iowa has 3/4ths of its rotation on the inside.
Outside, Iowa needs a pass rush. The Hawkeyes were abysmal at getting into the backfiend last year, ranking 113th in sacks and 105th in TFLs. The three aforementioned guys aren't going to be rushers, even though Alvis and Cooper can play outside. That rush outside could come from a group of four players: Bud Spears, Riley McMinn, Drew Ott, or Mike Hardy. They are all basically unknown quantities at this point.
So while the suspect Iowa defensive line doesn't have any real answers lying ahead, the Hawkeyes at least know what they have at linebacker, where two multi-year starters and last year's Big Ten leading tackler return -- all three of them seniors. This doesn't mean that this unit is necessarily going to be rock solid. ESPN wasn't high on this group's 2012 campaign, ranking the Iowa backers seventh in the conference and citing a lack of big plays to go along with the steady tackle numbers.
James Morris will continue to man the middle, but he would have to make a serious jump to contend for all-Big Ten, and while he is a solid tackler and good program guy, he is mistake prone and somewhat of a liability in coverage. Christian Kirksey had a good season on the strongside last year and has the tools to take another step forward. Anthony Hitchens led the conference in tackles last year despite it being his first as a starter, so there is definitely room for improvement. This unit is solid, but hasn't shown the ability to be the kind of linebacking corp that Iowa has shown it needs to succeed.
However, Iowa's talent coming back in the middle is more than the Hawkeyes can say for the secondary, where Micah Hyde is gone to the NFL and leaves a lot of uncertainty in his wake. Still, given how bad things got back there, uncertainty could at least turn out to be "hey, these guys aren't so bad."
Junior BJ Lowery is back after playing some last season, and he has the potential to be a solid option. He will probably start with either freshman Sean Draper or sophomore Jordan Lomax winning the job on the other side.
However, corner isn't as much a concern as safety, where Iowa went from the program known for turning piles of coal into fundamentally sound, robotic deep safeties to watching Tanner Miller do something like this all the time
And he's back. So there's that. What does Patrick Vint have to say about Miller?
For two seasons, Tanner Miller has singlehandedly destroyed the cornerback lined up next to him. In 2011, he probably cost Shaun Prater a couple million in NFL money by being perpetually out of position in cover 2 (which, if I'm not mistaken, is no more complicated than "sit deep"). In 2012, it was Lowery and Castillo and any other poor soul with the misfortune of counting on him for over the top help with the deep ball.
Man, have I been there.
/thinks about 2009
/stops thinking about 2009 almost immediately because it hurts my head too bad
The other safety spot, the one presumably not laying everything in its path in a fiery waste will most likely be sophomore Nico Law, a safety recruited (not a walk-on mind you) to play safety. Iowa loses a lot of guys from last year's secondary, but in this case, an infusion of youth might be a good thing.
The biggest thing to remember about Iowa's 2012 defense was that it was the first time an Iowa defense had been led by anyone other than Norm Parker in over a decade. While Phil "Not Norm's Son" Parker is still somewhat of an unknown quantity as a coordinator, year two is where you begin to get some answers as to just what a guy can do when put in charge. However, Parker isn't a new face from outside the program. He has been at Iowa for years and that minimizes the slack he gets cut for being the new guy. The system is still largely the same, and the pieces are known.
This is a unit that could be better in 2013 if a few key guys step up. There is youth along the line and in the secondary that will be thrown into the fire, and if those players can weather an increased role, Iowa's defensive prospects improve not only this year, but for the future. Stable production at linebacker should help steady the ship, but there are prone to be issues that are exposed. How quickly Iowa's coaching staff can address those with this squad will determine just how much of an improvement over last year, if any, the Hawkeye defense can make.