All bite, no bark: For the ‘mutts’ of college football, it’s about the turnover game, not the chain

Hawkeye Headquarters

Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Riley Moss (33) intercepts a pass for a touchdown against the Indiana Hoosiers Saturday, September 4, 2021 Kinnick Stadium.. (Brian Ray/


Miami lit the college football world on fire a few years ago when it debuted the turnover chain. Since then there’s been a throne, robe, backpack and chalice. Ask Penn State about their thank you card. It’s reached all parts of the college football map…except Iowa.

“I wish that guys would enjoy for themselves, be happy for each other,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.

It’s not that Iowa is anti-celebration, but that glamor and gimmicks wouldn’t really fit in. They’d just prefer to let their play do the talking; and it’s been loud this year. The turnovers have gotten the headlines and rightfully so. The Hawkeyes rank first in the country with 16 takeaways and some of those have completely swung the momentum of games.

Beyond that, they’re second in scoring defense and seventh in total defense. They’ve also gotten four of the five quarterbacks they’ve played, benched. But who cares, right?

“I don’t know if that’s a stat that we keep, but I know our kids enjoy the challenge of when we’re facing a good quarterback, they know they’re going to be challenged on the back end,” Parker said.

That’s the philosophy that’s made this defense so elite this year. It’s a philosophy that’s been easy for the players to buy into, because for most of these players, just getting to this spot was a challenge. Linebacker Jack Campbell says they’re the “mutts” of college football. An unheralded group of guys; some even doubted coming out of high school.

“I’m not going to say what coaching staff said it to me, but I didn’t have the right ankle bend or something like that,” Campbell said.

Senior defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg came from a division two program, junior corner Riley Moss was committed to an FCS program before coming Iowa and junior safety Kaveon Merriweather was a basketball player. So the hype was never there anyways and that’s just how they like it.

“When I’m recruiting, I look for those guys that have a little bit of hunger, like ‘I’ve never arrived’, I want to work hard and I want to be the best I can,” Parker said. “When they get here, I’ll tell them and I’ll tell their parents too, that I’m not easy to play for because I expect a lot and I’m going to be demanding.”

Look at the stats or listen to them talk. Either way, you better believe they’ve found those guys.

“I’m just doing everything I can for the team to put them in the best position and if that’s going to make me give up some part of my body, or some part of whatever, I’m definitely willing to do that,” Campbell said after his 18-tackle performance against Colorado State. “I just don’t want to let anyone down.”

That’s the kind of buy-in you can only get when there’s complete trust in the staff.

“Coach Parker, arguably the best defensive coordinator in the country,” junior corner Terry Roberts said. “He preaches perfection every week and just live on that.”

That’s something that gets built over time. Starting with the honesty during the recruiting process to helping them develop once they get to campus.

“We’re really teaching them from day one like a toddler,” Parker said. “We start at teaching the offensive formations, recognition, personnel groupings to try to get an understanding.”

After a while, the coaches give that trust right back to the players, and the players put their trust in each other.

“If they do it once, I know they can do it again and then they set the standards themselves,” Parker said. “That’s the good thing about these kids right now. They check themselves and they understand what they need to do.”

“I have complete trust in all the different relationships on that field,” Campbell said.

Saturday’s game against Penn State will be their biggest test yet. There’s going to be plenty of light, cameras and attention for the top-5 clash. But don’t tell the Hawkeyes that. There won’t be any turnover trash cans, chainsaws or championship belts.

Just some mutts happy to have found a home in Iowa City, still chasing that perfection they hear so much about.

“I don’t think we’ve had a complete game yet,” Merriweather said. “We still have so many things we can get better at. We’re steps away from being where we need to be and I think we’re almost hitting that ceiling.”

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