By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - With the Iowa football team coming off back-to-back losses and all but eliminated from the Big Ten West Division race, it’s easy to overlook Amani Hooker’s performance this season.
It is easy to overlook that Hooker is playing his way on to a long and distinguished list of defensive backs who have excelled under Phil Parker at Iowa.
It is to overlook that Iowa uses the 6-foot, 210-pound Hooker in ways that distinguish him from most other defensive backs at Iowa, even the real good ones like Desmond King and Josh Jackson.
Hooker is listed as Iowa’s starting strong safety for Saturday’s game against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium, and playing that position is his usual role.
But Hooker also has played outside linebacker in three games this season as part of a 4-2-5 alignment.
The Minneapolis native has shown the ability to get physical with tight ends and fullbacks in traffic, and the speed and quickness to cover receivers in space.
With a blend of talent and versatility that few possess, Hooker gives Iowa more flexibility on defense in an age when offenses are more spread out and more dynamic in space.
“I think it really helps us out in the coverage,” Hooker said of the 4-2-5 alignment. “It allows us to play a little bit different instead of just playing base defense the whole time and trying to mix it up and show different coverages. I think it helps us out in the long wrong.”
Hooker is a making a strong case for first-team All-Big Ten honors with his productivity, consistency and versatility.
He is second on the team with 44 tackles, leads the team with five pass break-ups and is tied for the lead with three interceptions.
Hooker has accomplished all of that while playing two different positions, including outside linebacker, where he still is adjusting to that role.
“I think I’m doing a good job so far,” said Hooker, who is a third-year junior. “It just keeps coming down to watching film and understanding that I can keep improving after every week.
“Every week is a new challenge, a new team, a new scheme, and I’ve just got to keep learning that position a little more and also the back end at safety, too.”
The fact that Hooker plays both safety and outside linebacker makes him a valuable piece to Phil Parker’s defense, but it could work against Hooker with regard to postseason accolades.
Because where do you put him?
He is clearly in my opinion one of the top defensive backs in the conference, but he doesn’t always play defensive back.
Regardless of his position, Hooker consistently performs at a high level against the run and pass, and has shown a knack for making big plays at pivotal times.
He had 13 tackles against Penn State in his first start at free safety last season and 12 tackles in his final start of last season against Boston College in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl.
Squeezed between that was Hooker’s most memorable play as a Hawkeye so far, a pick-six on the first play from scrimmage against Ohio State that triggered a stunning 55-24 on Nov. 4, 2017 at Kinnick Stadium.
Hooker noticed that Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett had locked in on a receiver, and Hooker then jumped the route.
Hooker used a combination of good instincts and athleticism to make that play, and he has been making big plays ever since.
He embraces whatever role that Parker gives him and then tries to compete at the highest level.
That is Hooker’s way of being a good teammate and his way of rewarding the Iowa coaches for believing in him when every other major college program didn’t.
Despite being a finalist for “Mr. Football” in Minnesota, his conference MVP and a first-team all-state selection as a senior, Hooker was mostly passed over as a recruit.
He picked Iowa over scholarship offers from New Mexico, Northern Iowa and South Dakota.
It was a familiar script as most of the star defensive backs at Iowa under Kirk Ferentz were lightly recruited in high school.
From Bob Sanders to Jovon Johnson to Micah Hyde to Desmond King to Josh Jackson, it is incredible the number of defensive backs who have achieved stardom at Iowa after being under-appreciated as recruits.
Hooker is arguably Iowa's most valuable player on defense because he impacts the defense in so many ways and because he consistently performs at a high level.
He is also a shining example of how and why Ferentz’s approach to running a developmental program has withstood the test of time.
Ferentz and his assistant coaches often see qualities in recruits that others don’t see, and then they develop those qualities for the rest of us to see on game day.