Iowa football: Potential break out stars on defense

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Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is hoping that some player will have some break out seasons on his defense.

Last season, Iowa had a supposedly big hole at the number two cornerback spot. Then, in the first game of the season, true freshman Desmond King stepped in for an injured Jordan Lomax and played tremendously. He played so well that he started for the rest of the season and picked up freshmen All-American honors by multiple publications.

Every year it seems like there are break out players for the Iowa defense and with so many new faces on the team, there are bound to be a couple players ready to wow the fans. Here I will try to guess who I think will have a break out year for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Back-up defensive tackle: Darian Cooper (#97, Junior (RS), 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, DeMatha Catholic (Elkridge, Md.))

This is what I said about Darian Cooper in my preview of the defensive line:

“To be honest, Darian Cooper could start on a lot of Big Ten teams. It just so happens though that at Iowa, he is behind two potential All-Big-Ten players. When he does get onto the field though, he shows how talented he is.

He came to Iowa as a highly touted 4-star prospect. The coaches praised him as an athletic and talented player that would see the field soon. As a redshirt freshman, he played in every game and totaled 34 tackles and a couple for loss. After the emergence of Carl Davis and Trinca-Pasat as every down players, Cooper’s playing time and stats went down. He only ended up with 18 total tackles including a sack.

Cooper may not get too much playing time as Davis and Trinca-Pasat are in front of him, but when he does get onto the field, he will leave his mark. He sort of reminds me of Mike Daniels a few years ago. The defensive line returned all four starters that year and but Daniels still broke onto the scene and ended up starting the last six games and having double digit tackles for loss. Cooper probably won’t start unless there is an injury, but Cooper may be so good that the coaches shuffle some things around to get him more playing time. He is a great player and he will show it this season and next.”

I still think that he will have a break out year. What the coaches may try and do is in some obvious running situations they may put him in at defensive end and on passing situations they might move him to defensive tackle. This is what they did with Christian Ballard a few years ago and it worked out really well. He also may be one of the rush tackles in the raider package on obvious passing situations. I think the coaches will try and get Cooper on the field in many different ways, maximizing his potential.

Linebacker Reggie Spearman (#6, Sophomore, 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Simeon HS (Chicago))

Here is what I said about Reggie Spearman in my linebacker preview:

“I am just going to say this right away; I am excited to see Reggie Spearman at a starting linebacker spot. He avoided a redshirt last season, played in all the Big Ten games, and did all of this with three established starters ahead of him. Also, he is only 17 years old, turning 18 in August.

Last season, he made his way onto the field in the new “raider” package that Iowa had. They had few down lineman, sometimes none; and the others were standing, ready to rush the passer. With that formation, the offense didn’t know who was going to rush or who was going to drop back into coverage. With Spearman’s speed, he was a premium rusher and would almost always blitz when he was on the field.

Now that he is in his second year, he is developing a more well-rounded game. He has gotten some coverage skills demonstrated in the spring practices. He is playing in Anthony Hitchens’ old spot, which means a lot of run stopping and some rushing of the passer so that will be a good fit for him. Coverage isn’t as important in that spot as it is at the other outside linebacker position. He will still have to improve though.

He is very young, so I am worried about the inexperience. It will help him that Alston is there in the middle directing him, but Spearman will probably have his share of mental mistakes. As long as he doesn’t think too much and just plays he will be fine with his athleticism and talent.

Look for him this season to be a decent player, but show flashes of greatness. Remember, he is only 17 and will turn 18 in August, so he is still extremely young. He has already bulked up and grown an inch since arriving on campus and he may continue to grow. He has elite athleticism and will hopefully demonstrate that on the field. Last year Morris led the team in sacks, the first time a linebacker has done that for Iowa since 1986, and I believe that Spearman could do it again. He is in the right position and has the skill to do so. I am probably being too optimistic right now but I can’t help it. I just have a great feeling about Spearman and I expect him to produce.”

I still think that Spearman will have a big year. He may be shaky at the start but he will really play well down the stretch. Iowa hasn’t had a player with his type of athleticism at this position for a long time and it is exciting what innovative ways defensive coordinator Phil Parker will use him.

Whoever wins the second cornerback spot:

Ok, I’m cheating. I’m not naming a specific name to who I think this will be because I have no idea. If all indications are correct, it is down to Maurice Fleming (sophomore), Sean Draper (junior), or Greg Mabin (sophomore). Right now Fleming and Draper are tied at the top of the depth chart but the coaches said to not sleep on Mabin as he is really making plays in practice.

Fleming came to Iowa as a wide receiver but made the move to cornerback during his freshman season. He redshirted that year as he also recovered from a torn ACL injury he acquired druing his senior season in high school. He played in eight games as a redshirt freshman, mainly playing in dime packages. He didn’t play too much in the early part of the season but did play in the last five games.

Draper on the other hand played quite a bit in the early parts of the season. Then he played poorly against Michigan State and barely played the rest of the season playing in only 3 of the last seven games. He is a true junior after seeing the field some as a true freshman in 2012. When on the field he has given up some big plays, namely two against Michigan State on the same drive which allowed them to score.

Mabin is the most interesting out of the three. He made the move from wide receiver to cornerback just recently and has yet to see any game action. The coaches said he has really picked up the position fast and they are fascinated by his physical attributes. Mabin is 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds. He is supposedly very fast and has great ball skills. He is still working on the finer points of the position but the coaches think that he may have the highest ceiling.

Now these guys haven’t had much time on the field to show what they can do, but the reason why I think one of them will have a breakout season is because of Phil Parker. The defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach always has a pair of tremendous corners that he coaches up. In the past 7 years, he has had at least one cornerback every year go to the NFL either by being drafted or picked up as a free agent. That is a very good track record.

You can always expect his cornerbacks to be sound against the run and avoid giving up the big play. They will be solid and won’t make too many mental errors. While I won’t be expecting another shut down corner like Desmond King to come out, I do think they will be solid players. Right now if I had to guess, I would expect Fleming to start but it wouldn’t surprise me if Draper or Mabin have their names on top of the depth chart by the start of the season.