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Iowa football 2023 winter position breakdown: Defensive back
Cooper DeJean, Xavier Nwankpa among key players in Hawkeyes’ 2023 secondary
IOWA CITY — To say Iowa’s success in the secondary over the last two seasons has been unique might be an understatement.
The Hawkeyes have 40 interceptions since the start of 2021.
The next-closest Power Five football team, North Carolina State, has 34. The next-closest Big Ten teams, Illinois and Wisconsin, have 33.
Here is an early look at Iowa’s defensive back position in 2023 as the Hawkeyes look to continue their success in the secondary:
Cornerback Riley Moss and safety Kaevon Merriweather are likely selections in this spring’s NFL Draft.
Moss, the 2021 Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year, had one interception and 11 pass breakups in 2022.
Merriweather allowed an NFL passer rating of 11.7 in 2022, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the best among FBS players who had at least 150 coverage snaps.
Terry Roberts, Reggie Bracy and Dallas Craddieth all departed via the transfer portal. Roberts now is at Miami (Fla.), Bracy is at Troy and Craddieth is at Kent State.
Injuries plagued Roberts’ 2021 and 2022 seasons, but he was effective when available. He held quarterbacks to an NFL passer rating below 35 and a completion percentage below 45 percent in each of the last two seasons, according to PFF.
Bracy and Craddieth mostly played on special teams.
Cooper DeJean highlights the list of players coming back in 2023.
DeJean, after playing sparingly in 2022, quickly emerged as one of Iowa’s best players in 2023. He had a team-high five interceptions last year and returned three for touchdowns.
Jermari Harris missed the entire 2022 season, but was a key part of the secondary in 2021. He started seven games after Moss suffered a knee injury.
Quinn Schulte, the former Cedar Rapids Xavier standout, had a successful first season as Iowa’s No. 1 free safety.
At strong safety, former five-star recruit Xavier Nwankpa is coming off his first career start in the Music City Bowl, which included a pick-6.
Sebastian Castro, whose role grew following Roberts’ injury, showed significant improvement between the regular season and Music City Bowl.
Jamison Heinz and T.J. Hall, who will be a junior and a sophomore in 2023, were thrown into the mix when DeJean exited the Nebraska game with an injury and faced adversity in that game.
Defensive backs at Iowa have overcome struggles as underclassmen to later be key contributors, though, as Moss showed after his 2018 shortcomings against Purdue.
Former running back Deavin Hilson will have his first full offseason as a defensive back after making the position switch during the 2022 season.
Other scholarship players expected to return in 2023 include Brenden Deasfernandes, A.J. Lawson, Koen Entringer and Deshaun Lee.
Jaxon Rexroth, who arrived as a walk-on from Cedar Rapids Xavier, appeared in 10 games in 2022 on special teams. He could be a candidate for second-team reps at safety following Bracy’s departure.
Who’s joining the mix
Zach Lutmer, John Nestor, Kahlil Tate and Teegan Davis will join the Hawkeyes in the summer as incoming freshmen. All four have three-star ratings from Rivals and 247Sports.
Iowa has not landed a commitment from any defensive backs in the transfer portal yet.
Way-too-early two-deep projection
There could be some shuffling here, depending on how some of the younger cornerbacks develop. DeJean mostly played at cornerback in 2023, but also has the ability to play safety.
- Cooper DeJean
- T.J. Hall
- Jermari Harris
- Jamison Heinz or Brenden Deasfernandes
- Xavier Nwankpa
- Sebastian Castro (when defense is in 4-3)
- Quinn Schulte
- Jamison Heinz or Jaxon Rexroth
- Sebastian Castro
When looking at Iowa’s first-team defensive backs, the Hawkeyes are in excellent shape.
Four of the five projected starters have had substantial roles in the secondary in 2021 or 2022. The other one, Nwankpa, was the top safety nationally in the 2022 recruiting class.
The biggest question for Iowa going into 2023 will be depth.
Iowa is expected to have six defensive backs returning who took at least one defensive snap in 2022 and often has five defensive backs on the field at one time.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has quite the track record developing defensive backs, though, so the position group certainly is not the most pressing concern for the 2023 Hawkeyes.