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IOWA CITY — Defensive back Jack Koerner recalled a moment in practice when head coach Kirk Ferentz asked players to raise their hands if they hadn’t participated in spring football at Iowa.
A staggering number raised their hands.
“You’ve got a guy like Dane Belton, he's played in 20-plus games, and this is his first spring ball,” Koerner said. “That's something that I didn't really think about too often. I think 2019 was my last spring ball and the young guys keep asking me about what the schedule is like. I’ve got to tell them... I honestly don't even remember.”
Spring football is not only providing more time than last year to find who will fill the gaps the veterans left behind, but also a time to build on what’s already strong.
That’s the story for Iowa’s secondary, which was third in the Big Ten in interceptions last year (11) and has had 64 interceptions since 2017, which is tied for most by any team in the country.
Koerner led the Hawkeyes with three interceptions in three straight games against Northwestern, Michigan State and Minnesota. He was third in the Big Ten.
“In our individual drills, we place a big precedence on getting the ball thrown to us and focusing on catching the ball,” Koerner said. “The biggest thing that I think translates over is if you have a scoreboard, if you will, about getting interceptions, forced fumbles, picking up a ball after an incomplete pass. It’s just things that kind of get guys in the habit of getting to the ball.”
The backfield may or may not carry more weight for the Hawkeyes this fall, given that the defensive line needs to fill the holes left by Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin with younger talent. This, however, has been the trend for the past two years, according to head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said the key to rebuilding that defensive line every year is maintaining the standard of not giving up explosive plays.
While Iowa was near the top in the Big Ten in interceptions, it was No. 5 for passing yards allowed — still in the top half of competition, but there’s room to improve after losing eight key defensive players.
“That's our biggest thing is how can we come together as a team, and understand each other,” Parker said Wednesday. “You can say last year the pressure on up front helped us in the back end, vice versa. I think everything’s involved when you're playing 11 guys on 11 guys.”
In addition, it’s practicing against a more diversified set of wide receivers, including veterans junior Nico Ragaini, senior Charlie Jones and newcomers like freshmen Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV.
“Keagan has been a standout for sure with the younger guys,” senior Riley Moss said. “Charlie Jones runs his routes crisp, so it’s always a challenge, but it’s good competition.”
The depth in the secondary does make spring ball even more exciting, according to Moss. Iowa also returns letterwinnners such as fifth-year senior safety Matt Hankins, senior safety Kaevon Merriweather, sophomore safety Reggie Bracy and junior corner Terry Roberts.
Iowa also added Xavior Williams this offseason, a transfer from Northern Iowa. He’s another option at corner. Parker said Williams came in the picture before he knew Hankins would stay for a fifth year.
Williams played corner and safety at UNI and was one of two players there to return a fumble and interception for touchdowns.
“It gets chippy later in spring ball because you've been around the guys so much,” Moss said. “It'll definitely breed a lot of growth, which is why we have spring ball.”
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