IOWA CITY — Amani Hooker’s performance this season has Iowa football coaches contemplating the future look of the Hawkeye defense.
The junior strong safety split time between his traditional position and shifting to a spot inside the box, which allowed Iowa to deal with the growing number of Big Ten offenses that have adopted a spread approach.
His move nudged the Hawkeyes out of their traditional 4-3 defensive alignment and into a more athletic look better suited to deal with the one-back offensive sets that have become more commonplace.
Iowa began exploring the idea of essentially adding a fifth defensive back to its alignment on a more frequent basis during the preseason, and Hooker made his debut there five games into the season at Minnesota.
He proved to be the right player for the spot at the right time, providing the crucial blend of athleticism and strength to make the move work.
Hooker was named the Big Ten defensive back of the year and earned second-team all-American honors from both the Associated Press and USA Today after finishing second on the team with 59 tackles, sharing the team lead with four interceptions and breaking up a team-leading seven passes.
Iowa coaches liked the results as well.
“It certainly has provided us with a different perspective,” linebackers assistant Seth Wallace said Wednesday. “Conversations continue to exist as to how we shape this thing moving forward, how that changes our personnel and how it affects recruiting.”
Those questions will continue to be discussed into the offseason.
“The conversation is about how it can help us moving forward and not just in the present, how does it allow us to compete based on the offensive personnel that we are facing on a regular basis?” Wallace said. “We’re seeing more one-back sets in the Big Ten than ever. How do we respond to that? Those are the questions we continue to develop answers to.”
The answer, Wallace said, likely extends beyond Hooker’s time in an Iowa jersey.
“What he did definitely provided us with a bit of an edge, and Amani was the right guy to make it work,” Wallace said. “Now, we’re out there looking for that next guy.”
Finding that player with the right skill set, the requisite blend of strength, speed and smarts, is among Iowa’s objectives as it builds its 2019 recruiting class.
Hooker’s emergence came at a time when the middle of Iowa’s defense was in the midst of a period of adjustment.
The Hawkeyes entered the season knowing they would have three first-year starters after Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower exhausted their eligibility.
What Wallace didn’t know at the onset is how their replacements would perform.
Ultimately, the Hawkeyes started five different lineup combinations at linebacker during their 8-4 season and runner-up finish in the Big Ten West.
Injuries and inconsistencies in performance kept things fluid throughout the season, but the experience gained this season positions Iowa well for the future at all three linebacker spots.
“I don’t want to say we over-performed at that position, but I do think that from an expectation standpoint, especially with the injuries and the different starting lineups, just the mix and match, there were some real positive things that are giving us a jump start heading into bowl prep and next year,” Wallace said.
The only senior in the group is Jack Hockaday, whose contributions over eight games as a starting middle linebacker Wallace labels a significant component to Iowa’s stability.
Djimon Colbert with nine starts, Kristian Welch with six and Nick Niemann with five will provide the Hawkeyes with some serious experience as they work toward 2019.
Amani Jones, a starter in Iowa’s season opener, joins four freshmen who adjusted to the college game this season in creating the nucleus of talent at the position as the Hawkeyes look toward the future.
“I think the mixing and matching and dealing with some of the injuries we encountered was a real positive for us,” Wallace said. “It’s put us in a good place.”