116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — It’s hard to beat what Iowa’s secondary did in 2021.
Its 25 interceptions led the FBS, and those 25 picks came from 11 different players.
But the group will look different in 2022.
Here’s how the defensive back position stands at this point in the offseason in the latest part of The Gazette’s Iowa football winter position breakdown series:
The Hawkeyes lost three of five starters from the position group via either graduation or the NFL Draft.
Dane Belton, Iowa’s 2021 leader in interceptions and pass breakups, declared for the NFL Draft. Belton thrived in the cash position since his true freshman season.
Matt Hankins used his extra COVID-19 year of eligibility in 2021 and earned second-team All-America honors from the Walter Camp Foundation and American Football Coaches Association. His season came to an abrupt end with an injury as he missed the last four games.
Jack Koerner will pursue an NFL career instead of staying for a sixth year in Iowa City. The former walk-on developed into a consistent starter at free safety.
While he played a much smaller role in the secondary, cornerback Xavior Williams told the Burlington Hawk Eye before the Citrus Bowl he plans to sign with an agent and pursue an NFL career.
The most notable returner for 2022 is Riley Moss. The 2021 Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year said before the Citrus Bowl the odds of him pursuing the NFL Draft this year was north of 50 percent.
Then he announced on Jan. 5 he’ll instead stay for his extra COVID-19 year of eligibility.
“Riley was a last-second deal,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said last week. “I really thought he was heading the other direction.”
Moss grabbed four interceptions in Iowa’s first six games before he hit a midseason setback with a knee injury.
Ferentz said in 2021 he considered Terry Roberts to be a third starter (behind Moss and Hankins). Roberts had a lingering bone bruise, though, that limited how much Iowa could use him later in the season.
Jermari Harris, who saw increased playing time following the aforementioned injuries to other cornerbacks, will be back after experiencing “probably the biggest learning experience in my life” in 2021.
Iowa also has the benefit of another year of Kaevon Merriweather at one of the safety spots. The Belleville, Mich., native had one interception and four pass breakups in 2021.
Sebastian Castro and Xavier Schulte were listed as second-team safeties in 2021, but neither saw significant time in a crowded secondary. Koerner’s departure could open the door for more snaps, but there will be plenty of competition for those opportunities.
Younger players to keep an eye on include Cooper DeJean, Reggie Bracy and A.J. Lawson.
Who’s joining the mix
Iowa signed five scholarship players at the position in the 2022 recruiting class along with two walk-ons.
Xavier Nwankpa, a five-star recruit, essentially could’ve gone to any Power Five school, yet he chose the Hawkeyes. Nwankpa has, by far, the best odds of being an immediate contributor for the Hawkeyes.
Deshaun Lee, Olando Trader, Koen Entringer and T.J. Hall are all considered three-star recruits.
Way-too-early two-deep projections
The eighth installment of this series is the first one with a true freshman projected as the starter.
- Riley Moss
- Reggie Bracy
- Terry Roberts
- Cooper DeJean
- Xavier Nwankpa
- Quinn Schulte
- Kaevon Merriweather
- Sebastian Castro
- Jermari Harris
The return of Moss, Roberts, Merriweather and Harris means the Hawkeyes already have four starter-caliber players.
The rave reviews Nwankpa has drawn as a recruit screams potential for a fifth starter-caliber player. It’s hard to do too much evaluating, though, before he plays his first snap at the collegiate level.
Who else stands out at this position group will be a key question for spring practices.
It’ll be incredibly difficult to repeat the Hawkeyes’ video-game-like 25 interceptions from 2021 in 2022. It is realistic, though, to expect upper-tier production from the 2022 version of the “Doughboyz.”
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