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IOWA CITY — If Jermari Harris wasn’t a fast learner before 2021, he is now.
“These last few weeks have been probably the biggest learning experience in my life,” said Harris, the sophomore cornerback, after the Citrus Bowl. “These last two, three months, I’ve learned the most I’ve learned in my 21 years of life.”
That learning will be important in the 2022 offseason.
The Hawkeyes’ secondary will have a different — and younger — look in 2022.
The uncertainties surrounding who would pursue an NFL career and who would stay for another year are no longer uncertain. Riley Moss will be back, but Dane Belton and Jack Koerner won’t return.
That leaves Iowa with a much better idea of what the 2022 secondary will look like, and it’s a younger group than in 2021.
The players in the secondary returning for 2022 have 45 career starts — a stark contrast from the 79 starts Iowa had in the secondary entering 2021.
Even excluding the 15 starts Belton technically had at linebacker because of the cash position, the 64 starts at traditional defensive back positions going into 2021 far outpace the 45 in 2022.
Moss and strong safety Kaevon Merriweather will presumably take two starting spots. Merriweather was one of the highest-graded players by Pro Football Focus on Iowa’s defense.
The other three spots won’t have such experienced options.
“There are going to be guys having to step up in that room,” Harris said after the Citrus Bowl. “I’m going to be an older guy now.”
Some adversity at the position in 2021 gave Harris and other younger players a head start on development for 2022.
Harris opened the 2021 season as the fourth cornerback on the depth chart behind three solid options. Moss was a future Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year. Matt Hankins hadn’t missed a start since 2018.
Terry Roberts was in a second-team role, but head coach Kirk Ferentz said early in the season he considers Roberts a starter as well.
On paper, that wouldn’t leave much playing time for Harris at the two corner spots. But then the three aforementioned players all missed time with injuries.
The Hawkeyes’ last game with all three available was Oct. 9 against then-No. 4 Penn State.
Harris started at cornerback in four of Iowa’s last five games and caught Ferentz’s attention.
“Jermari has really done a great job,” Ferentz said last month. “And this is a great opportunity for him. And that's the ‘next man in’ concept.”
Sophomore Sebastian Castro and freshman Cooper DeJean also saw some action in the secondary, albeit in much smaller quantities. Castro had 43 snaps on defense, and DeJean had 11, according to PFF’s snap counts.
Iowa’s secondary will receive another talented weapon with the arrival of five-star recruit Xavier Nwankpa, who was widely considered the top safety in the 2022 recruiting class.
The former Southeast Polk High School standout is the highest-rated recruit to come out of the state of Iowa in more than a decade.
Nwankpa is getting a head start on development, too, enrolling at Iowa for the spring semester.
“It helps you run a system, get your body right and ultimately help you hopefully play as a freshman,” Nwankpa said in December.
Ferentz knows better than to say too much about which young players — in the secondary or elsewhere — have stood out quite yet, though.
“I anticipated that question from someone about the younger guys,” Ferentz said last month, a couple days before leaving Iowa City for the Citrus Bowl. “I decided I'm going to keep a lid on that because it will become the Internet marvels of the offseason and all that. Then it will be, ‘How come so-and-so is not playing?’”
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