Iowa Football

Iowa football recruiting 2018: Defensive backs

Croot Loops: Iowa secondary reloads, yes, it's that good at this point

Iowa defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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Editor's note: Second in a series evaluating Iowa football's incoming class. (Previously: Linebackers)

Iowa’s secondary enjoyed a tremendous 2017 with 21 interceptions, the most since 2009.

That was fun, probably, for Josh Jackson. The nation’s interceptions and passes defensed leader decided to leave a year early for the NFL. Iowa’s secondary isn’t starting all over again, but Jackson ended up being a singular eraser that made opposing quarterbacks pay dearly for their miscalculations.

The great Purdue third-quarter debacle, as it will go down in the history books, did yield Matt Hankins. Last season as a true freshman, Hankins entered the game in the third quarter against Purdue, when the Boilermakers threw their best punches in the form of long TD passes and took the lead for good, and settled things. Hankins finished the year as the starter.

Jackson is gone. Will junior Manny Rugamba be up for replacing him? Secondary coach/defensive coordinator Phil Parker is going to find out.

Iowa has lots of able bodies in the secondary. The four players the Hawkeyes brought in for the 2018 recruiting class might run from “plug and play” to developmental.

Iowa picked up commits from four 4-star athletes, two of which (Julius Brents and Dallas Craddieth) are in the secondary.

Julius Brents

Without the early signing period, the ride to the finish line for Iowa and Julius Brents might’ve been a little nuttier than it ended up.

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Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell worked the Indianapolis area hard this recruiting season. He secured commitments from Brents and fellow Indy defensive back D.J. Johnson. Think about where Indianapolis is. Yeah, Ohio State is over there. And, oh hey, the SEC is pretty close. And, if you think about it, Notre Dame is the ACC and it’s right there, too.

So yeah, Bell is unabashed in his thoughts on whether or not the early signing period helped with Iowa getting commitments from Brents and Johnson.

“There’s no doubt about it. There’s no doubt about it,” Bell said. “You’re not 6-2 plus and high 170s and run like he does, not just Big Ten, but ACC and SEC, those are the type of schools after that kid. To get in there and sink our teeth in early, it helped us. It also helped us with kids in Indy, getting them on campus. He’s a kid who visited four or five times before he committed. That’s huge.”

So, what happens on unofficial visit No. 4 or No. 5 or No. 6?

“You try to dig in a little bit deeper each visit,” Bell said. “Obviously, if a kid is visiting four or five times, you as a staff want the kid there. They’re paying their own way to come here. You know you’re on the right path, so you try to show them something a little different each time. It might be a tour of the dorms. It might be meeting more academic personnel. You try to ingrain him a little more in the culture of Iowa football.

“That’s good. But really, when you look at the analytics behind that, the more times a kid visits, the likelihood that you’re going to get them goes up. (Linebacker Jayden) McDonald from Georgia, one and done, that was it. When you’re from that far away, you’re right, it kind of has to be (one and done). There are instances ... It doesn’t happen so much Big Ten-wise, but there will be kids in the Midwest who will take a trip to Alabama. They might get on campus more than that because of who it is. Anytime we can get a kid to Iowa, we are extremely happy.”

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Lettered as defensive back while helping prep team post 25-10 record over final three years ... Team captain as a senior. (Brents also missed the last four games of his junior year and first four of his senior year with injuries.)

Noteworthy offer: Michigan State

Depth chart in 2018?: Yes, and it feels like he’s going to get every chance to impress. I feel like Iowa still is looking for a top four or five corners. If the corners in the 2018 class hit like I think they will, this is probably the last year for a little while where every corner Iowa signs is probably in. Roster should be full of able bodies in 2018 and probably 2019.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Greg Mabin

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Same long-levered corner that Phil Parker likes to recruit. Brents fits the Phil profile pretty perfectly (alliteration is always annoying). Mabin ended up a three-year starter and was on active rosters in the NFL last season. Brents might get this same sort of shot.

Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell — “Position flexibility with Julius. The flexibility with him is whether or not he’s a corner or a safety? He’s going to be a big kid. The thing that caught our eye about Julius, he was one of the first kids I offered when I took over Indiana from Jim Reid. I remember you see this kid working out, see him in the gym, the first thing you notice is that he is so long. For a bigger guy, he has the ability to stay with smaller guys. He’s like Spider-Man. Long arms, long legs and really good ball skills. We’re just excited to have him. Whether it be safety or corner, he’s going to be an asset for us. Outstanding family. His mom is a rock star, Serena Fowlkes. His coach is Jason West. They’re really high on the kid. Just getting in there early and developing the relationship. He’s the kind of kid with some different type of ability.”

My take: Well coached. Brents seems to have a high degree of understanding on moving efficiently. He’s sure with his hip and isn’t out there blindly guessing. The fact that he’s sure on his reads allows him to do that. Those steps won allow him to “stick.” Brents can get vertical. Long and late over the middle, out routes without enough zip, he’s going to get those footballs.

Dallas Craddieth

Let the record show, the “hybrid” linebacker talk was started by Phil Parker before the Pinstripe Bowl. During a news conference in December, Parker just kind of threw the idea of using more of a safety body than a linebacker body at the outside linebacker (“leo” as Iowa calls it) position. It’s already a position Iowa has started calling “hybrid” or “adjuster.”

It sounded as if it was something Parker actually is considering. How much? Let’s see this spring. Until then, don’t get this stuck in your head as the “great eureka” for the Hawkeyes as they continue to figure out ways to be as sound as possible against the run while being able to defend in space.

For me to totally be like “OK, maybe Iowa is seriously considering this,” I have to see Nick Niemann at inside linebacker. He’s Ben Niemann’s brother. Ben played the “adjuster” linebacker for three years. Maybe Parker has deemed the OLB too tough of a body to find and now wants to fill it with more of a safety body?

Anyway, Dallas Craddieth is probably a safety, but maybe he’s more than that.

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Named conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. ... Team captain as a senior.

Noteworthy offer: Nebraska

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Depth chart in 2018?: Yes. Craddieth is listed at 6-0, 197. You see some O-line types who sometimes need to have their bodies transformed. Craddieth looks like a college safety already. Could he make a run into the top four safeties next season? Let’s see Jake Gervase, Amani Hooks, Geno Stone and ... yeah, he can.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Desmond King

If an Iowa corner isn’t the long-levered kind, the other “mold” seems to be sort of a Desmond King guy. He’s usually under 6-feet and usually around 200. It’s the classic “boundary corner” body, a corner who can get to the short area and usually is a sure, physical tackler. Receivers will have to punch in to work around Craddieth.

Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell — “Really good kid, first and foremost. We offered back in March 2016. That was a junior day we had back then. He showed up here going into his sophomore year in high school. Coach (LeVar) Woods had done a really good job in the area. We knew enough about him then that we knew this was going to be somebody we were going to want to have on our football team.

Is Craddieth a safety, corner? — Bell: “He’s a defensive back. And, above all else, we talk about position flexibility, I think he’s a guy who can run, who can tackle, can cover in space. Those are all good things. With the way offenses are going right now, the more of those guys you can have, I think to say that he’s a safety is selling the guy short. He might line up there, but his skill set is versatile. He can do a lot of things.”

My take: I watched a Rivals film of Craddieth. Wow, that was a wild ride. Craddieth is very handsy on the line of scrimmage. That’s why coaches love him. He played in and out of the contact without a lot of body adjustment (not a lot of flailing, won the battle for position). Covered through the whistle. Craddieth is going to make camp fun for any receiver who thinks they’re going to tra-la-la through drills (they never do that, by the way). Craddieth finishes full-sized. He’s not a cover guy who happens to tackle. He’s a tackle guy who reads the QB’s eyes extremely well.

D.J. Johnson

The sighs the recruiting coordinator makes sometimes, here is where they come from: After the Ohio State Buckeyes beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game last December, OSU defensive backs and special teams coach Kerry Coombs dropped in to check on an Indianapolis prep defensive back named D.J. Johnson.

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“I had to fight off Kerry Coombs, he was in the house,” Bell said. “The Sunday after Ohio State won the Big Ten championship game, Kerry Coombs is in the house. I’m like, 'what can you do?' Then, LSU comes calling. But the kid stuck with us. Credit to his mom, LaShanda. She was with us all the way.”

Johnson is from North Central High School in Indianapolis. Former Iowa wide receiver Anthony Dean (1990-94) is the defensive coordinator at North Central. Yes, he offered Johnson any info on his alma mater.

“We had a connection at the school. Anthony Dean was the defensive coordinator at his school,” Bell said. “Anthony, being a Hawkeye and being familiar with the program, that was a huge help for us.”

This Iowa class also got a commitment from a Florida wide receiver from a prep team coached by former Iowa safety Marcus Paschal. Iowa also got help from Jovon Johnson and Bob Sanders in recruiting Erie, Pa., defensive back Terry Roberts.

“I think that’s a by-product of getting old. There are more guys out there,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said with a laugh.

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Four-year football letterman ... team captain as a junior and senior ... also lettered in basketball as member of prep team ranked first in the state and 25th nationally. Named conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. ... Team captain as a senior.

Noteworthy offer: Notre Dame

Depth chart in 2018?: Yes. Johnson is listed 6-0, 170. Size is there to challenge for time at corner and/or special teams. Matt Hankins jumped in last fall and competed right away. It didn’t pay off until late November, but Hankins used the last third of 2017 to position himself for 2018. He’s only a sophomore. Both corner positions should be open and the challengers are lining up. Johnson and everyone in this post is a challenger.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Desmond King

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Broken record, but I think the dimensions fit. Plus, Johnson plays the run extremely well. King did get a lot of credit for that during his Iowa days. He was a very physical player and extremely sure tackler. It’s why the Chargers loved their 2017 fifth-round pick. Let’s say boundary corner for now, but Johnson might have the range to go field, too.

Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell — “I hope that DJ bulks up the way that Desmond did. DJ was a kid I first saw on the basketball court. I remember going to the school and they had a coaching transition going on. His school is huge, I think like 5,400 kids. I walk in and there’s a kid who’s going to UCLA and another kid going to Marshall, both for basketball, and here’s this point guard who’s just competing his butt off. That’s where I first saw him. I had to go check and watch the film."

My take: Great sense of body position. The only “out” Johnson leaves in coverage is the perfect throw. He’s where he needs to be, sees when he has to go over the top or around. Forceful and aggressive. The ball in the air is his and you’re going to have to fight Johnson for it. Tracks the ball well and stays square while doing so. Keeps himself in position to make plays even when the QB’s eyes are somewhere else.

Kaevon Merriweather

It’s nice to be able to have options in life. Kaevon Merriweather knows that now and it should serve him well the rest of his young life.

Merriweather played his junior season at Romulus (Mich.) High School, where he played basketball and football. While at Roumulus, Merriweather picked up a few college basketball scholarships, including Western Michigan and Division II Ferris State.

He transferred to Belleville (Mich.) High School on the last day of school his junior year. He decided to go out for football his senior year there in June. The 6-2, 195-pounder played a season of football at Romulus, seeing time as a defensive end and outside linebacker.

“His coach talked him into going out,” Bell said. “Great kid, great home life. Mom is incredibly supportive and his grades are unbelievable. He’s a sharp kid. Really good basketball player, just starting to scratch the surface of what he can do on the football field.”

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Even with three FBS-scholarship caliber defensive backs, Merriweather pushed his way into playing time at Belleville.

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Earned second-team all-conference honors and was defensive Player of the Year as a junior. ... Earned Honor Roll recognition every semester for four years ... Earned Certificate of Academic Achievement for maintaining 3.0 GPA.

Noteworthy offer: Iowa was Merriweather’s only offer.

Depth chart in 2018?: Maybe. It depends on where Merriweather’s body goes. Does he hang around the 210-pound range? If so, he’s probably a safety and finds that path rather quickly. If he starts his career as a Leo or “hybrid,” then maybe his body goes to the 220-range. That might take some more time. Every year, Iowa recruiting is tied to the “where the body goes” with a handful of recruits. Merriweather certainly fits that.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: A.J. Edds

I think Merriweather gets closer to 220 probably fairly quickly. I see him in the hybrid role, tracking running backs, tight ends and slot receivers. And tackling them. Tackling was a big reason why Iowa took this chance.

Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell — “He knows football is his calling. He’s 6-1 1/2 and point guard on the basketball team. On the football field, we covet these guys who are big enough, and he is at 195 coming in, to handle himself on the field and also have the speed, quicks and instincts in space.

“That’s where the game is going. You have to be able to defend in space outside on the perimeter. You just can’t have enough of those guys. What do you call them? Do you call them a safety, do you call them a linebacker? I don’t know. We call it a hybrid. He’s between the two. Can he cover? Yes. Can he tackle? Yes."

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Outside linebacker? — “Could end up there. Could end up there in certain packages. Could be a safety. It’s a good problem to have."

As a tackler ... — “The physicality, that’s a prerequisite for playing defense here at Iowa. If he wasn’t physical, it would never have gotten this far. That was the thing, you watch the film and you see this guy has no fear. You can work with that.”

My take: I would’ve thought more offers for Merriweather based on the way he closes alone. He plays to keep everything in front of him and then when it’s time to go get the ball, he makes that tackle. You can see the space defender in him. The long arms make Merriweather hard to get away from. He doesn’t have to do it every play, but love the instinctive breakdown looking for the form tackle, especially when defending the run. Fearless run defender.

Terry Roberts

I never do this. The reason I’m doing this now is to set off the next thought. I don’t hear this kind of thing very often and thought you might enjoy it.

“Erie kid with great recommendations,” Bell said. “He got a recommendation from Jovon Johnson. He got a recommendation from Bob Sanders. Enough said. We’ll take that kid.”

Pretty good start at Iowa already for Terry Roberts.

Some of Iowa’s best football players from the early 2000s came from Erie, Pa. Safety Bob Sanders is the king, but there also was wide receiver Ed Hinkel and cornerback Jovon Johnson.

For whatever reason, Iowa lost touch with its Erie connections. Erie running back Greg Garmon spent a season at Iowa before leaving in 2012, and that’s really been it.

Until last summer, that is.

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Erie Cathedral Prep cornerback Terry Roberts picked up an offer from Iowa during his July visit. After returning home, the 5-foot-10, 169-pounder announced that he will follow in the footsteps of Johnson, his mentor, and play football at Iowa.

Duquesne (Pa.) was the only other offer for Roberts. Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe had a hand in Roberts’ recruitment. “They are still talking cornerback, but coach Ken O’Keefe talks to me about offense a lot too, so I don’t know,” Roberts told HawkeyeReport.com. “It may be a possibility, but I know for sure that cornerback is the main position that I will be playing.”

 

Most interesting thing from hawkeyesports.com bio: Three-year football letterman as defensive back, wide receiver and kick return specialist ... Prep team won state championships as a junior and senior after finishing as runner-up during sophomore season ... Three-year team record of 42-2.

Noteworthy offer: Duquesne

Depth chart in 2018?: Possibly. How deep will Iowa need to go at corner this year? Where will Roberts fit in that scramble? Iowa corner shouldn’t have to reach as deeply on the depth chart as it did last year. Top four corners right now? Manny Rugamba, Matt Hankins, Michael Ojemudia and a pretty open chair for someone.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Jovon Johnson

Oh, I see what I’m doing here. Jovon Johnson is the mentor, so he’s the compare. Cute, funny, whatever. But seriously, Johnson was just a nasty, sticky full-service corner in his four seasons at Iowa. Yes, Iowa corner has had a great run the last few years, putting players in the NFL including Josh Jackson, who’ll probably be a first-rounder in April. Johnson could stand with any of them. Seventeen interceptions in four seasons as a starter.

Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell — “He came out to camp, which is unbelievable. There are kids in Chicago. There are kids in Iowa. There are kids from Wisconsin. Some kids won’t come to camp here and earn anything. They expect it to be given to them. This kid drove out from Erie for a one-day camp. He came here, he performed, he earned it. Those are the types of kids we want.”

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My take: If the ball is in the air, Roberts is contesting it. Sees and breaks as well as any defensive back in this class. Plays a physical perimeter game. Doesn’t let receivers just have their way. I don’t want to just throw “special teams value” in there, but Roberts has grade-A ball skills. Smooth, moves confidently on the field. Maybe Erie and Iowa can become a thing again.

It’s probably too much to ask if Roberts can make Ferentz forget Sean Lee.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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