116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Former Hawkeye Jovon Johnson gave 9-year-old Terry Roberts a tall task at a football camp. Roberts had to go up against an older kid who “we thought was a really good player.”
“I knew that Terry would step up to the challenge,” Johnson said more than a decade later, recalling the details as if it happened yesterday.
Johnson was right.
“The kid released on him, and he intercepted the ball,” Johnson said. “He threw the ball up in the air. From that point forward, I just knew, ‘That kid is going to be special.’”
With the same passion that he had when chucking the ball in the air to celebrate the interception in camp when he was 9, Roberts has enjoyed a significant role in the Iowa football secondary in 2022.
“Starting with Game One, he really made his presence felt,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s a very dynamic special teams player, and then on top of it, he’s really played corner well and played it with some emphasis out there, some enthusiasm.”
Cooper DeJean has officially started the first two games at cornerback instead of Roberts, but Roberts also has made starter-caliber contributions through the first two games.
Roberts has an interception and two pass breakups while playing significantly on special teams. He has given up only 3 yards after the catch on the six receptions he’s allowed this season, per Pro Football Focus.
The senior defensive back was kicking himself, though, for one item that isn’t on his 2022 stat line — a touchdown.
Roberts had plenty of room when he picked off Iowa State’s Hunter Dekkers, but he couldn’t stay on his feet.
His body language after the big play showed obvious frustration with himself — a reaction one wouldn’t expect to see from a player who just grabbed an interception.
“Obviously I saw a lot of green grass, so I really wanted to take it for six,” Roberts said as he wore the defensive backs’ Kum & Go “You don’t drop money” shirt.
Roberts didn’t drop money as he held onto the interception, but he was upset at himself for not cashing in at the end zone. He tweeted after the game, “All I had to do was stay on my feet.”
Johnson, who played for Ferentz in the early 2000s, believes Roberts should have the starting cornerback spot opposite of Riley Moss.
“(Roberts) was the starter in training camp, starter in spring ball and all of that,” Johnson said. “That was kind of taken away from him a little bit with DeJean, who is a very good player, but I just don’t feel like he suits the defense as a corner as much as he does as a safety or inside nickel player.”
Fellow defensive back Quinn Schulte described Roberts as “definitely a high-energy guy.”
“He brings energy wherever he’s at, and he’s fun to be around,” Schulte said. “He’s the life of the party.”
The fifth-year senior is especially having fun now that he can be on the field after an injury-derailed 2021.
“It’s been so long since I’ve actually been on the field,” Roberts said. “When I’m out there playing, it’s time for me to just be me, have fun out there, show my emotions.”
Roberts was having a breakout season in 2021, and his role was growing with the injury to Moss against Penn State. He had a career-high 91 snaps against Purdue.
Then a special teams play in practice changed everything. He suffered a bone bruise while trying to block a punt, and backup Nick Phelps was screaming in pain.
“When the impact happened, my leg kind of went numb,” Roberts said. “I didn’t really feel my leg. … The coaches say it was no one’s fault, but I felt like it was my fault. I could’ve avoided it.”
Now, he uses it as a cautionary tale for other players on special teams.
“Every time we’re in punt return, I tell everybody, ‘If coach (LeVar) Woods tells you to go block it, make it look like you’re going to block it. Don’t run into the punter,’” Roberts said. “Just don’t. Learn from somebody who’s actually did it.”
The collision essentially ended Roberts’ season.
Roberts missed the last five regular-season games, and his work in the Big Ten championship game was limited to eight snaps on punt coverage. He also did not play in the Citrus Bowl.
“It was a different type of bone bruise,” Roberts said. “I don’t know what type it was, but it wasn’t fun obviously during the process.”
Roberts “didn’t realize it could take that long” for a bone bruise to heal.
“Not everything’s going to be great during the process, so you’ve got to trust the process and just keep going,” Roberts said. “Have the faith.”
Johnson now has faith in the senior defensive back taking another step — playing professionally. Roberts could enter the NFL draft after this year or use his extra COVID-19 year of eligibility and wait until 2024 to go pro.
Roberts is relatively short at 5-foot-10, but Johnson had a stint in the NFL at 5-9 and Bob Sanders was a Hall of Fame safety at 5-8. All three came to Iowa from Erie, Penn.
“Knowing that what I was able to do and seeing what type of guys play at the next level, I think he has what it takes to play at the next level for sure,” Johnson said. “What he brings to the table on special teams alone is going to give him a shot to play.”
Growing up in Erie, Roberts was about two hours away from three NFL teams — the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I was a Browns fan growing up, but then at some point, I was just like, ‘They’re not changing. They’re not winning,’” Roberts said. “So I got away from being a Browns fan.”
His fandom may change again in 2023 or 2024 based on who gives him a shot at the next level.
“Whoever wants Terry, I’ll go down,” Roberts said. “We’ll work.”