IOWA CITY — Amani Jones’ road to quarterback Brett Gabbert was an open path of Kinnick Stadium artificial turf.
“I saw his eyes, and he saw me, and I knew, ‘I got him,’” said Jones, the Iowa senior linebacker who is now a stand-up defensive end in the Hawkeyes’ ever-evolving defense.
Oh, he got him.
Jones buried Gabbert, the Miami (Ohio) quarterback making his first start, for an 11-yard loss on a third-and-6 play in the third quarter of the Hawkeyes’ 38-14 season-opening win on Saturday night.
The sack killed a drive that wasn’t going to be an answer to Iowa’s first of four second-half touchdowns, and was one of the big plays that helped everyone get past the sputters of the first half.
“That energized me,” said Jones, who really doesn’t need energizing. “That feeling was just electrifying for me.”
It was supposed to be an electrifying night for A.J. Epenesa, the defensive end at the other end from Jones. Epenesa, a preseason All-American selection, played all but three snaps in the game, far different from last season when he didn’t even play half of the snaps in the 13 games.
But Epenesa had just one tackle assist as he was constantly double-teamed by Miami’s offensive front.
All that did was open lanes for players like Jones, who pointed out that Iowa’s defense is just fine despite all of the losses from last season’s unit.
“Our defense, we haven’t lost that much,” Jones said. “The media, they say we lost this, we lost that. I say we didn’t lose that much.
“We’ve got what we’ve got, and it’s pretty good.”
Iowa held the RedHawks to 245 yards on 52 plays. Miami rushed for 59 yards and had the ball for just 24 minutes.
The focus was on Epenesa, and the rest of the Hawkeyes were more than happy to slip through the cracks.
“If they want to double-team, that’s two checkers for one, right?” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s been a long time since I played checkers. I think that’s a good thing.”
Epenesa had 16 ½ tackles for loss last season, including 10 ½ sacks. Miami coach Chuck Martin kept saying three quarterbacks would play in Saturday’s game, but Gabbert was the only one who did, and Martin was determined to keep him safe.
So Epenesa would face double-teams, or chips, or whatever concoction of protection — anything to keep him out of the backfield.
“It can be frustrating at times, but it’s something to work on,” Epenesa said. “It’s something I’ll have to expect every game, every play.”
“That’s the curse of being a good player,” Ferentz said. “Sometimes that happens. But that should free some other things up for the other guys. And that’s a team effort out there.”
Linebacker Djimon Colbert and Kristian Welch each had eight tackles. Defensive tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff each had five.
The rest of the checkers had fun.
Jones’ sack was his only tackle of the night, but Epenesa broke out in a big smile when he talked about Jones’ play on special teams.
“Did you watch him on kickoffs tonight? Holy cow,” Epenesa said. “He didn’t lose stride running through (a Miami player). That guy got up wobbly, every single time. Amani was just smiling, like a guy who likes to run through walls. A bowling ball, a big ball of muscle. One of the nicest guys you’ll meet, one of the hardest workers you meet. His athleticism, it’s out the roof. Pound for pound, he’s the toughest guy on the team.”
Jones was a starting linebacker to begin last season, but there was too much energy for his game, and not enough patience required for the position.
“I feel like this can open doors and I feel like I can get some more eye-openers for my coaches, get more trust from them,” Jones said. “What happened last year still kind of lingers in the air a little bit. I feel like I can try to erase that.”
That one sack, with no one stopping him and a lot of open turf to help him build speed, could be the starting point.
“In practice, yeah, I’ve been that open,” Jones said. “Maybe not that open.”
Epenesa was never that open all night.
Welcome to the new reality.
“That’s going to be part of the deal,” Ferentz said. “And he’ll have to live with that a little bit.”
“But he’ll be good. He’ll be all right.”
“It’s just a matter of practicing, getting used to it,” Epenesa said. “There are things you can do to beat it, plays we can run to counter it, to free me up. But I have confidence in the other guys to make plays.
“I’ve got to get used to it. It’s going to be a way of life now.”
The rest of the defense won’t mind all of the open turf.
John Bohnenkamp is a part-time sports reporter and columnist for the Pen City Current. John is an award-winning writer, editor and columnist and covers area high school sports, University of Iowa football and basketball, and Western Illinois University.