By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Amani Hooker’s rise as the University of Iowa’s starting strong safety was a popular topic of defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s Wednesday news conference.
Hooker started the season as a reserve before entering the starting lineup at free safety against Penn State. He started two games at the position before junior Brandon Snyder’s return forced Hooker to the sideline.
But Hooker replaced starting strong safety Miles Taylor early against Illinois on Oct. 7 and made an impact. He finished the game with six solo tackles and his first career interception.
Is that enough for Hooker to supplant Taylor as the Hawkeye starter?
“As long as he can keep up with what we’re doing on defense and understanding what he has to do,” said Parker. “He’s doing a good job. He has earned playing time.”
Parker points to Hooker’s instincts and athleticism.
“He has a great feel for the ball,” said Parker. “(Against Illinois) he had the understanding to get under a route and recorded that interception. He also had an excellent play on the sideline when they threw the ball to the flat; the way he closed and tracked the ball and his ability to tackle (was impressive).
In the second quarter against the Fighting Illini, Hooker had a leaping intercepting of Jeff George, Jr., at the goal line. It wasn’t the first time he caught Parker’s attention.
“Go back to the Penn State game, a play he made when (Saquon) Barkley was coming out and he was one-on-one. He tracked him and made a tackle that was surely going to be a touchdown. It shows he is progressing every day and he’s getting better.”
Couple that with the return of Snyder — a junior with 14 career starts — will help aid Hooker’s growth.
Snyder was cleared to play Sept. 30 at Michigan State and he made his season debut against Illinois. Parker noticed a difference with Snyder back in the defensive fold.
“The communication has picked up since he has been out there,” said Parker. “You can see him directing traffic and understanding not only what plays they’re going to run, but making sure that everybody is in the right coverage, in the right defense, at the right time.”
Through the first six weeks, Parker has been encouraged by the play of Iowa’s defense. The Hawkeyes surrender 388.3 yards per game, but only give up 18.7 points. The team is limiting opponent to a 33 percent success rate on third downs.
Parker likes Iowa’s eight-man defensive line rotation, he says the senior linebacker trio of Josey Jewell, Bo Bower, and Ben Niemann have been solid, and he’s comfortable with the Hawkeye secondary.
“I’m pleased with what we’re doing out there,” said Parker. “But we have to play cleaner football to win games.”
Part of the cleaner equation means limiting the explosive plays. Iowa has surrendered six runs and 16 passes of 20 or more yards in 2017. Ironically, the Hawkeyes gave up seven of these long plays against Iowa State and six against Illinois and were victorious both games.
Iowa is seventh in the Big Ten with 12 sacks at the midway point. Parker thinks the defensive line is getting enough pressure for the unit to be successful without having to dial up blitz after blitz.
“We’re doing pretty well,” said Parker. “You look at it and say I think they’ve been putting enough pressure on them. I think we have to do a better job in pass coverage.
“Our pass rush with Anthony Nelson and A.J. (Epenesa) has been doing a good job, right now we’re not as bad as I think people think we are. You look at how many times we hit the quarterback against Penn State. I don’t think he was hit twice before we played him.”
Nelson has five sacks to rank fourth in the Big Ten, Epenesa has 2.5 sacks and a team-best four quarterback hurries. Five Iowa defensive linemen have been credited with a sack this season.
The Hawkeyes are 4-2 overall, 1-2 in the Big Ten at their bye week. The team begins its second half Oct. 21 at Northwestern.
“We’re looking to move forward,” said Parker. “It’s a great week to have guys get some rest. It’s a perfect time to have a bye week.”