IOWA CITY, Iowa — First of all, thanks for coming. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you guys, and I know you take time out of your day to come here. I’m going on my 20th year season here, and it’s always good to come here and talk to you guys and give you kind of a little bit of last comments about how the spring is going.
Before I open it up to any questions, I’d just like to sit here and talk about little things that we try to get accomplished during the spring, and one is the leadership. I always believe that if somebody is going to be a leader, and we’ll do it by position, and to me, you have to do well on the field to take that leadership role, and I think that’s very important.
And obviously we need them in other parts outside the football field. But with leadership, I think that’s where it all starts: Where are you achieving on the field.
If I look at the defensive line, the leadership comes from Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson. You look at the safeties with Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker. We expect a lot, and they’ve been doing a lot for us on the back end. And then obviously in the linebacker area, I think Amani Jones is doing a great job there at the Mike backer.
Going down to the strengths of our team, a strength is our defensive line. I think we have a lot of guys that can play defensive end, which allows us to be more flexible and maybe slide a couple guys inside. With the opportunity to put maybe Sam Brincks inside a little bit, Chauncey Golston, to put him inside has helped us out to be a more effective two-deep in the front, and I think it’s been really good. They’ve been working there. We did it for two weeks with one and then we did two weeks with the other, and we’ll probably switch them off going back and forth.
I think in the linebacker group, I think you look at Amani Jones and Jack Hockaday, I think they’ve been doing a very good job of taking charge at the Mike position, and Welch and Aaron Mends at the Will. And Nick Neimann, and also I think a really good surprise, Barrington Wade has really done a tremendous job of increasing his knowledge and his ability to move around on the field.
The inside guys, the defensive linemen, I’d say Cedric has done a good job. He’s improved. He’s not there yet. And you look at Brady Reiff as another guy inside. But moving Sam and Chauncey in there a little bit has given us a little bit more depth across the board.
You go to the linebackers, obviously the challenge is we lost a trio of Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann. Losing those three guys is a challenge. That’s a job, and I think the growth that Amani and Aaron have been doing on the field, making plays, and the communication between them and their effort that they’re giving is everything we’re asking for them to do.
You talk about the defensive backs, Jake Gervase obviously has the most experience back there. He’s been a vocal leader and I like his energy, and Amani Hooker has obviously played a lot of games back there, and you’ve got Geno Stone that played against Nebraska, and I thought he did a really great job during that game. We’re really solid with those three guys.
And Brandon Snyder is definitely going to be coming back, and he’s on schedule with his rehab, and we’re really excited to see where he’s going to be in the summer, and definitely next fall he’s going to be a factor.
Q. At linebacker if you had a game Friday night instead of a scrimmage, who would be your two guys on the inside right now?
PHIL PARKER: I would say right now we’d start off with Amani Jones and Aaron Mends. I think they are two guys right now that we’d probably start off with. It varies every day. Sometimes one guy might be better than the other, but right now that’s who I’d start.
Q. What has Amani done? He’s built like a bowling ball or a tank, I guess, but what has he done to assure you that he can handle that responsibility?
PHIL PARKER: Commitment and the way he puts his effort and the time in, watching film, preparation, the energy and the excitement that he brings to the field, and then obviously when he finishes plays, I mean, he likes to go after guys, and he does a good job of tackling guys. We just like his enthusiasm.
Q. So it’s Jack and Amani in the middle, and Christian and Aaron at Will?
PHIL PARKER: Yeah, right now, yeah, that’s the way we have it right now, and then obviously Ben and Barrington Wade outside.
Q. With Amani in the middle, what do you like about him in the middle?
PHIL PARKER: I think his ability to read the box and diagnose the plays, and when he goes, he goes. I think his ability to go ahead and trigger when he sees something, and when he comes, he’s well-packed. He’s got a low center of gravity, and he runs through guys. I’m really excited to see what he can do.
Q. Where is the communication in the back seven compared to where you want it to be going forward?
PHIL PARKER: Well, you know, we kind of keep track of guys, and the big thing for us is we never want to get beat with mental errors. If we get beat physically, that stuff happens. It happens every day, whether you’re in high school or whether you’re in college or pro football. But the biggest thing we don’t want to do is get beat by mental errors. Since the beginning of practice, we’ve been tracking them to now. We’ve cut them down almost in half. Every day there’s always a challenge of the way the offense is operating and how we’re doing things that they’re going to make us think a little bit, and our guys have to be on the same page.
So at the beginning of spring ball, you know, the changing and who’s going to be in there, and now we’re settling down on the guys that are in there, it’s a lot better over the period of time of, what, 13 practices or 12 practices so far.
Q. Does it help with the defensive line right now, especially with Brandon being the most experienced, when they’re making calls? They’re obviously doing their line calls, but the back seven has got to do more —
PHIL PARKER: The backers have to do the most. They’ve got to do it up front and the back end. The good thing is we’ve got good experience up on the front guys, and we’ve got good experience in the backside. So between them, you gain a little bit from the defensive line, you gain a little bit from the secondary. So I think it all kind of evens out after a while.
Q. The linebackers, have you guys lost time in installing nickel and maybe some other packages because you’re figuring out linebacker?
PHIL PARKER: I don’t think so. I think we’ve been pretty on schedule. We went through all the installs so far. Right now we’re done installing, and we’ve got everything in that we need to get in for right now. But basically that really didn’t change anything. Whoever is in there, we’re going to put a sub. We have enough guys on the back end that we can put in there. And the good thing about Amani Hooker, he’s another guy that can go ahead and play the star position along with Manny, so that’s been beneficial. So when we run first or second team, we’ve still got a guy. Now, there might be double reps with some other guys at different positions, but we’re going to live with that, and we’re going to go ahead and do it, execute it.
Q. Like pull a linebacker off, and then same principle up front, your four best pass rushers —
PHIL PARKER: Yeah, it depends. Sometimes we might keep our four guys in there, but we like to get our fast guys on the field and our best pass rushers to get after the quarterback.
Q. To be clear, you said Sam Brincks is moving inside —
PHIL PARKER: No, I didn’t — he’s moved inside to take some reps. He still does both. Chauncey still does both. The more flexibility that we have that we can put guys inside and outside is a benefit to us right now, and I think they both can do it. Obviously they can’t play them at the same time, but I think they’re doing a pretty good job of it.
Q. Last year you pretty much stuck with the three. Do you anticipate multiple linebackers playing throughout next season or is it too early to tell?
PHIL PARKER: I think it’s too early to tell. I like to settle in on — there’s going to be somebody that’s going to be the starter, so whoever that is, I think you play them until you think the other guy is better in, my opinion.
Q. One thing that a lot of your defensive guys have said during the spring period is the way Big Ten offenses are attacking defenses now has changed. You guys are essentially running pretty much the same defense and the same formation. I know things are different now. What kind of bridge from 1999 until now, how have you been able to do that? How is that defense still reliable in this day and age?
PHIL PARKER: I think in the last four or five years, it’s definitely changed. The ability of the guys that we’re recruiting out there, you look at Kirksey, when you had him out there, a guy that can run, I think you look at Ben, he was another guy that was long. He was a safety. And then his brother Nick, we’ve been very fortunate to have that unique guy in what we call the Leo outside backer to do those types of things.
The good thing about it is our kids keep on learning and the more reps they get at it, the better they become. But at some point in time, we’re trying to keep on building if we can get a guy in there maybe like Amani Hooker, which I’m not saying he’s moving there, but that would be a type of guy that you’d want to put out there in certain personnel groupings. But you wouldn’t want to put him in that situation if you’re playing 21 personnel, if you’re playing 22 personnel or 12 personnel. You probably wouldn’t want to do that.
Q. I think you guys are a little undersized up front and you’re moving bodies in trying to find pieces of work there. Do your safeties have to be more sewn into the running game if you’re newish kind of between the tackles?
PHIL PARKER: I don’t think so. Coach Morgan has done a good job of getting those guys ready, and I think they can hold their point. At times I think some guys can get worn out, and that’s why we’re looking actually to make sure we have more guys that can rotate in there, and one of the advantages of spring ball is you have an opportunity to find out if they can go do it. We’re not really sure, but after the first couple days we were unsure, then hey, it looks like they’re doing pretty good in there. That is an option. And then obviously some kids can come in as freshmen and give us some more depth in there as we go along.
Q. You’ve got quite a bit of experience at corner, certainly more than, say, a first-round pick has last year going into the season. Where do things stand there, and also, you’ve always played true freshmen and have never really been concerned about that, and you’ve got some very talented ones coming in. Where do things stand at cornerback, and do any of them have a chance to break through in August?
PHIL PARKER: Well, right now, I think obviously Josh next week probably will be a first-round draft pick, and losing him, it’s very similar to losing Desmond King and Greg Mabin. Like who is going to replace those guys. Michael Ojemudia has done a good job at his position. I think he’s growing and maturing. Matt Hankins, who played late in the season as a starter, I think he’s done a good job this spring. And Manny, he’s a guy that can play inside and on the star that we had him, and I think eventually all three guys can do that. The guys that are going to come in as freshmen, when we get an opportunity to see them, I won’t be afraid to put a guy in. Maybe can they give us another nickel role or can they be another guy. And I’m thinking that we’ll have one or two guys that might have to play in the back end.
Q. How good of a professional do you think Josh Jackson is going to be and why?
PHIL PARKER: You know, it’s kind of hard to say. I think he’ll be in the league a long time. Based on his commitment to preparation and things he has to do in the NFL, it’s a little bit different game than it is in college, but he does have a lot of ability, and I think he has a lot of room to grow. I think one more year here would have maybe helped him grow a little bit more, but we understand the process that he went through.
I think he’ll be a guy that will last 10 years. I wouldn’t say, hey, will he be an all-pro guy, I can’t say that. No, it’s too hard to say. I don’t know everybody in that league.
Q. Last year when Brandon was able to make it back for one game, he started, and then he was out. When he’s all the way healthy, do you see that as a three-way competition at free safety? Is he going to move to back up Amani? Is it wide open when he gets back?
PHIL PARKER: When he gets back, we’re going to take it step by step to see how he feels comfortable getting back into the rhythm, and I think when he gets back, I think we have at least two deep at safety at each position. I can’t tell you that right now until I actually get to practice them. But I think it will be good for us to have the capability to have two deep at safety, and it might give us a little bit more flexibility on some of our other packages that we want to use.
Q. Seemed like Manny had a pretty up-and-down year last year. Do you agree with that, and how has he kind of responded this spring?
PHIL PARKER: I think it’s a challenge as a true freshman to come in and play against Michigan and having a great year, and a lot of people patting you on the back, and I think maybe he might have lost his focus a little bit, not as detailed, maybe not as much of a time commitment. I’m not really sure. But you’re right, up and down a little bit. But I thought for this spring, at times I think he’s been really good, and he’s working his tail off.
His job is to go ahead and prove that he’s a starter, and obviously he’s a starter at nickel, but he wants to be a starter in regular base defense.
Q. What type of growth have you seen from AJ?
PHIL PARKER: AJ is a very talented guy. There’s times where I think he’s really done a good job. He’s still young and understanding the position. We had the capability the other day to flip him on the other side, so he can play right and left, and that’s exciting to us. He still has a long ways to go to where I think he needs to be.
Q. What are some of those areas that you’ve seen that —
PHIL PARKER: He’s got to be a little more disciplined in knowing his responsibility and understand that people are going to change formations, they’re going to change the calls for you. When you’ve got your hand in the ground, it’s a lot harder for those defensive linemen to hear the secondary, the linebacker guys making calls. So he’s definitely got to listen a little bit better.
Q. Outside we see a lot of guys you’ve got to replace, Josey Jewell, Josh Jackson, all your linebackers. You seem to be pretty confident that you can replace those guys and be comfortable.
PHIL PARKER: Well, it’s always hard to replace three guys that played a lot of football here and had a lot of starts in between them.
But I think that it’s up to everybody every year. We have to get them replaced. I think the defensive line and also the secondary has got to help these guys. And the more the guys understand the game of football at any position, whether you’re D-line or whether you’re a secondary coach or linebacker, the more you can help out each other, the guys that are playing next to you, and that’s our goal is to make sure that everybody knows what’s going on on every play, on every snap. You have to let the guys know next to you what you’re doing. But you can’t do that unless you know what’s going on on the defense.
Q. Do you have mechanisms built in to where you guys are doing exactly what you just said, everybody knows?
PHIL PARKER: I’m not a big believer in tests and stuff like that, just like you go out on the field, that’s your test, and you can always tell. But we’ve done a lot more of quizzing these guys, and nowadays you can get online and we can make up a test, a 10-question quiz, and we can tell when they start, when they finish, what time they started, and can shoot it out just like that. We know if a kid opened it up and was on there for an hour and a half, the kid must be struggling. He’s on there for five minutes and he gets a perfect grade, he knows what he’s doing.
We’ve been trying to do that and trying to educate these kids. My one goal for our guys is learn something, one thing, every day about our defense. Know it to the best of your knowledge. If you do that before the start of the season, everybody should be on the same page.
Q. In your opening remarks you mentioned that this is your 20th season. What were your hopes and goals 20 years ago when you left the job you’d been at a long time to come here?
PHIL PARKER: My goal was to be able to coach guys at a high level in the Big Ten, and it still is today. I’ve been blessed. I think the biggest, the most fun that I have is being in the film room with these guys watching film, practice film, game film, and the bond that you build with these kids. To be able to take a kid and try to get him to his fullest potential before he gets here, that’s all my goals are. There’s nothing in here about, hey, this is my goal was to be the defensive coordinator here at Iowa. It wasn’t that when I came here 20 years ago. And I still sit there and I think it’s the best thing is trying to educate the kids that we have, make them the best football players they can be, the best people that they can be, and teach them about life.
Q. Do you ever think about being a head coach? Has that ever entered your mind?
PHIL PARKER: Yeah, it would be nice sometimes, and when we go through it, and sometimes you like to be the head coach and make the decisions and change some calls out there when Coach moves — hey, it’s 2nd down, no, it’s 3rd down, what down it is, yeah, that’s when I’d like to be the head coach.
I think being the head coach, you become more a manager than actually coaching the game of football, so that’s some things when it comes to it. If somebody gave me an opportunity, I’d take a swing at it, but I think you lose touch sometimes with the individual player at times. It’s hard because all the other things that go on with media, alumni, and stuff. Obviously you guys know Kirk, he gets dragged a lot of different ways, and sometimes I wonder how he does it.
Q. What’s the best way to defend the Hail Mary? What do you teach your back line, defensive backs to do? We’ve seen a lot of the ones that have been completed, especially Michigan State about six or seven years ago, Aaron Rodgers. They seem to hit right around the goal line. What do you do when somebody is, say, launching it from midfield?
PHIL PARKER: First thing I try to do is not get in that situation. That would be the first thing. Second thing, I would pray a little bit. But the whole object is — my philosophy is, depending on how far they have to throw the ball down the field, and let’s say if they have to throw the ball — the receivers have to run 50 yards downfield, my objective is I’m going to bring the heat and make them throw the ball before they can throw it. Make them throw it now so the receivers aren’t down there to catch it. That’s one.
The other philosophy is to get as tight as you can on them, you jam them, three-man rush them, and play three guys over the top. And the biggest thing is you’ve got to have the right guy going and jumping for the ball, and you pick your guy, is it the tall guy, is it this guy. I always believe it’s the guy that is the playmaker.
And you always do the coaching points is the best thing to do. You either go get it at the highest point, and if you can’t put your hands around it and catch it, you’ve got to slam it down to the ground. That’s basically what we do. It’s hard to practice live because of the injuries that might happen to your own guys.
Q. Would you ever recruit a wide receiver or tight end like Noah Fant?
PHIL PARKER: We thought about that. But how many times has he actually gone up and practiced that. Now, I’m sure if we got into a situation and took that time away from him, it would be hard to ask Brian if we could to take the tight ends for 20 minutes and practice jumping and knocking down a ball. But I think you’d have to work at it in practice. We’ve talked about it, but sometimes I always like to be confident of the guys that I know, that I work with.