116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Iowa doesn’t know if it will have championship quarterback play, if its offensive line will return to performing at Hawkeye standards, or if it has a kicker who can extend a five-year stretch of kicking glory in which 81.9 percent of Iowa’s field goal tries were good.
In a lot of wind Saturday at Kinnick Stadium at the Hawkeyes’ final spring practice of 2022, Aaron Blom and Drew Stevens didn’t make 81.9 percent of their field goal attempts. Not even close.
It’s April and there are questions about September, as always. Yet, what might lead you to believe Iowa has a chance for its third-straight full season of 10-plus wins is defense.
The Hawkeyes have first-rate defenders all over their lineup, experienced and accomplished guys. The line is seasoned and deep. Tackle Lukas Van Ness could be the next big D-line thing here. He has help.
Iowa’s three starting linebackers — Seth Benson, Jack Campbell and Jestin Jacobs — form one of the best trios the Hawkeyes have sported at that position, and that’s saying something.
The secondary? It will be tough to find playing time for all the talent. Riley Moss and Kaevon Merriweather have made their marks, Quinn Schulte seems set to add to the Hawkeyes’ long list of sound starting safeties, and there’s talent behind them that may be too good to limit to special teams.
True freshman safety Xavier Nwankpa, the 6-foot-3, 211-pound, 5-star recruit, didn’t enroll here early to sit and wait. He got in 15 college practices with his Southeast Polk High classmates still a month from graduation.
“Xavier, he’s a big freshman,” said Iowa senior cornerback Terry Roberts. “He’s obviously still young, but Xavier is a hell of a player. He’s definitely going to be an NFL player.”
Sophomore cornerback Cooper DeJean, who was in on important plays late in Iowa’s Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky, will be heard from. On consecutive plays here Saturday, he broke up a pass and then downed a punt inside the 5-yard line.
“Cooper, he’s a hell of an athlete,” Roberts said. “It’s out of this world. He can jump. He was a bit faster than I thought. I got to run next to him, side by side, during the season. I was like ‘Whoa, this kid’s fast.’
“He’s going to be a dangerous player.”
Then there’s Roberts himself. Before a bone bruise sidelined him for most of the second half of the season, he was electricity inside a football uniform with the way he chased down and punished kick returners. He made a nice, brief splash at corner when All-Big Ten Moss was out with an injury.
Roberts says he’s the fastest Hawkeye. “They have to show me I’m not,” he said. “When it comes to racing, I’m going to run.”
Asked his hopes and goals for the fall of ‘22, Roberts was succinct.
“Destroy all my opponents,” he said.
“Not being beat at all on the field, no missed tackles or anything. Just dominating everyone that lines up against me, dominating everyone that’s not wearing the same-colored jerseys.
“This game is more than just a game for some of us. I take this game personal. … I’m not even close to my full potential.”
As a freshman, Jermari Harris started six of last season’s final seven games and had four interceptions. But he’ll be suspended for the season-opener against South Dakota State because of a recent OWI arrest. Good luck pushing replacement Roberts off the depth chart’s first team.
Iowa was defense-heavy last season. That, combined with spectacular special teams play, got it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game. People want more from the offense than they saw last year, but perhaps this year’s offense only needs to be competent for the Hawkeyes to return to Indy.
“We’ve certainly got a lot of work to do,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said, “but I think we have a chance to have a good team if we can work the way we’re supposed to and don’t get too many bends on the road that are unexpected.”
From a coach, that’s unbridled optimism. When the sportsbooks set the over-unders for college football wins in 2022, going with Iowa and the over might be a good play again this year.
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