Iowa tweaks its defensive rotation
By LUKE MEREDITH
AP Sports Writer
Iowa will likely keep bringing sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa off the bench and move Barrington Wade into the starting lineup to replace the injured Nick Niemann at linebacker.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Wednesday the goal is to keep the explosive Epenesa as fresh as possible. Epenesa leads the Hawkeyes (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) and is tied for the Big Ten lead with four sacks, and he also has four quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.
Epenesa would certainly be a starter on most teams. But since Iowa has as many as eight quality linemen in its rotation, Parker doesn’t feel the need to rush Epenesa’s development.
“If we played him more, would he be as productive? That’s the thing you’ve got to really watch out,” Parker said. “I really think the way we’re handling the situation, and it worked out the first four weeks, is that 25, 26, reps a game has really been his potential to really make some big plays. Now, obviously, you want to keep on doing that and pushing them forward, and I think he will the more you go on in practice.”
Niemann, a sophomore in his first season as a starter, had been a pleasant surprise with 22 tackles at outside linebacker. He injured his knee in last weekend’s 28-17 loss to Wisconsin, and coach Kirk Ferentz said he’ll likely be out a few weeks.
Wade’s ascension is just the latest move for a linebacker group that has played much better than anticipated despite losing all three starters before the season.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been senior Jack Hockaday, who replaced Amani Jones at middle linebacker in the opener. Hockaday has a team-high 28 tackles and become a key communicator in the middle of Iowa’s defense.
Still, Parker had nothing but good things to say about Jones, whom he described as a key asset on special teams and a leader despite losing his starting spot.
“Right now we feel that Jack (Hockaday) is the best guy that can help us move forward and have a chance to win every game,” Parker said. “Not saying that Amani won’t get back in there. I think he has a lot of upside and we like his energy, and we like the way he can find the ball. Sometimes we’re going to have to put him in there and we have to live with some mistakes that go on.”
Iowa is off this weekend and travels to face Minnesota (3-1, 0-1) on Oct. 6.