No defense allowed fewer yards per game than Phil Parker’s Hawkeyes. Iowa’s mastermind defensive coordinator fields elite defenses year after year.

Yes, Jack Campbell, Lukas Van Ness, Riley Moss, Kaevon Merriweather and Seth Benson are gone. The 2023 Hawkeyes are inevitably going to look different on defense — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Phil Parker compared building a defense every year to riding his bike through the woods.

“I ride my bike and I see a doe over there and couple of fawns,” Parker said. “Then I see a big buck and then you might see a wolf or something.”

“I look at those guys and say, ‘Some of those guys are fawns. Some of you guys don’t know what you’re doing.'”

For reference, a “doe” is a female deer, a “fawn” is a young deer and a “buck” is an adult male deer.

The fawn on the Iowa defense is the only underclassman who’s a projected Day 1 starter: Safety Xavier Nwankpa. Nwankpa was a five star high school prospect, and got his first opportunity to start in the 2022 Music City Bowl.

All he did was intercept a pass, which he returned for a touchdown, while racking up eight tackles.

“I’m really just excited for the opportunity,” Nwankpa said. “You only get to play college football once and try to make the most of it and just have fun with the guys and just compete every day.”

“He’s got a lot stronger and faster,” cornerback Cooper DeJean said of Nwankpa. “He’s just seeing the game really well. It’s been fun to see his growth and I’m excited for him to get a shot this season.”

DeJean would qualify as a Buck — he only set a school record for interceptions returned for a touchdown with three. But his focus this season is to play like a buck, and mentor his teammates like a doe.

“It’s been cool, I’ve just been focusing on helping this team win any way I can,” DeJean said.

“I start to see him getting a little bit more vocal and trying to help out the other kids,” Parker said. “I tell him, ‘Coop if you’re on the sideline, start coaching some of these guys here and give him some of the information.'”

Jay Higgins learned from some of the best bucks in college football — Jack Campbell and Seth Benson. After waiting his turn for three years, it’s finally his turn to lead the herd.

“It’s been rewarding,” Higgins said. “Now the opportunity is in front of me, and now it’s time to take full advantage of it.”

“I can’t say enough about Jay Higgins,” linebackers coach Seth Wallace said. “He had every opportunity to leave… I think we all should step back, pause for a second, and just look at his situation and just appreciate it for what it is.”

The Iowa defense is probably going to be really good — and maybe great — once again. But Parker challenges his defense to think like deer, but when he throws them to the wolves he wants them to come out leading the pack.

“I tell our guys, ‘Some of you might be like a mother, like a doe,'” Parker said. “And then you’ve got the big buck who’s experienced and knows he’s not getting killed. And then you got the wolf that’s coming after you. So who are ya?”

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