TAMPA, Fla. — Iowa’s defense was so into washing off the 4-8 stink of 2012 that it blew off nice summer weather to spend time indoors watching video of themselves screwing up.
A lot more went into it than that, but the bigger point is washing off the stink of 2012. Iowa’s defense had a considerable stake in that — Iowa finished ninth in the conference in total defense, seventh in scoring defense — and wanted it scrubbed away.
The idea for video study started with the seniors. They pulled in a few more players. Pretty soon, the “palms up” and “where am I going?” that showed up in Iowa’s 2012 defense turned into understanding the game.
Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker said it was something his players did in the early 2000s. Safeties Derek Pagel and Sean Considine bought into it and grew their games from walk-ons to NFL draft picks.
“They were film rats and studied a lot,” Parker said. “Over time, they passed that along to guys. I think we had a little gap there in the preparation and what they had to do in the offseason and to prepare during the week. It takes a lot of time.
“That was one of my main things. For them to play, they had to understand the game of football. Once they dug in, they started seeing that. And then, they started playing faster. They’ve seen the results.”
Iowa’s defense finished No. 7 in the nation in total defense, allowing 303.2 yards a game. That’s the highest national finish for an Iowa defense in the Kirk Ferentz era (Iowa has twice finished 10th, 2009 and 2004).
Iowa finished third in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 18.8 points a game, its best effort since allowing 17.0 points a game in 2010.
It almost has to be the film, right? Iowa’s defense fielded seven starters from 2012 this season, including senior linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey, the clear playmakers this season.
“We (seniors) felt, and the coaches felt, we had a young team and a lot of guys who were young and needed to contribute,” Morris said. “We needed to raise the football IQ of the team. We felt that if everyone on the defense understood it better, they could play faster, play better and that would lead to more wins.”
Defensive tackle Carl Davis is the case study here. The 6-5, 315-pound junior entered this season with a short résumé. He played something in the neighborhood of sixty snaps his entire career before 2013. He was always big, but he never really made his bigness work for the defense.
He didn’t know what he was doing, and he didn’t like it. He was one of the early adopters of the summer video study hall.
“I remember talking to Hitch (Anthony Hitchens) about it,” Davis said. “I told him we need to do something extra. We need to get guys smarter. We need to go beyond practicing and knowing what to do. We need to know how the defense works as a whole. It paid off.”
Davis talked leverage and angles.
“You can play faster,” he said. “This one time, I missed an assignment, but I knew at this angle where I needed to go, because I knew where the linebacker would be. I made a play right there.”
Another benefit from all of this togetherness was the football culture it created. Instead of talking video games, Iowa’s defense found itself talking about positioning and responsibility.
“It’s brought them closer, and I think we’ve had a tighter-knit group on defense,” Parker said. “It’s kind of contagious. They get together a little bit closer. The guys are always talking football. The inside linebackers, the outside linebackers, the secondary, D-line, you see the way they bond. And they know each other and they know what’s going to happen and know the plays.”
During interviews Sunday, linebackers Quinton Alston and Travis Perry, the heir apparents for 2014, nodded at the notion of that summer video study being a factor in the defense’s success.
And, of course, they vowed to keep that going.
“Yes, sir,” Alston said with a laugh. “It’s definitely going to continue. That’s helped us a lot. Understanding the game has helped get us in the right spot faster. We hope that’ll get us some big plays.”