IOWA CITY — Matt Hankins probably didn’t win the left cornerback job against Purdue last season.
It was a trail of carnage if you’re an Iowa fan and you don’t like long passes against your defense. Purdue trailed Iowa, 9-7, at halftime. Iowa decided to go into the 20 mph wind in the fourth quarter, and Purdue decided to go for it in the third.
Two TD passes and three Iowa corners later, it was 21-9 Purdue and the Hawkeyes were in deep trouble in a game they eventually lost, 24-15.
Manny Rugamba, Michael Ojemudia and Hankins gave up completions. Defensive coordinator/secondary coach Phil Parker matched Josh Jackson on the culprit, wide receiver Anthony Mahoungou. He was targeted six straight times over the first two drives of the third quarter. Five were completed and one was a pass interference on Rugamba.
That matchup, along with the wind, caught the Hawkeyes. This is where the old defensive back mantra really has to come through.
Short memory. You’ve heard all of Iowa’s really good corners use that phrase. Desmond King said it all of the time.
“As a defensive back, you don’t want to give up a catch and you don’t want to give up a touchdown,” Jackson said after the game. “If you do, you need to have short-term memory and you need to come back and make a play.”
See, all of Iowa’s best defensive backs have said it.
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This was Hankins’ takeaway. He slid over when Jackson moved and he stuck. Hankins started at Nebraska the next week and in the Pinstripe Bowl.
He’s a No. 1 this year. It feels like he’s established at one of the more competitive positions the Hawkeyes have.
“I had confidence in Matt when we recruited him,” Parker said. “At that point, he didn’t have a chance to get in there enough, but I felt confident enough with just the way he was practicing the whole year that if something came up, he could go in there with confidence.”
Pretty much that, Hankins said.
“He had trust in me, that’s why he threw me in there,” Hankins said. “I’m still working on it. You can always improve. I’m always gaining more confidence from him.”
Coming out of Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas, Hankins (6-1, 185) had 23 offers. He got a late offer from Michigan. Uh oh. It’s good and bad when Jim Harbaugh slimes in to steal your recruits. It means you have a player and your recruitment of said player now has a challenge.
Hankins is quick with this answer.
“Iowa was the best fit for me,” Hankins said. “I still feel like it’s the best fit for me. It’s the best decision I’ve made in my life so far. The coaching staff, the people in Iowa City, all good vibes.”
What really helps Iowa here is that Parker knows what he wants in his defensive backs. He’s been Iowa’s defensive coordinator since 2012. He’ll enter his 20th season as head coach Kirk Ferentz’s defensive backs coach. Before Iowa, Parker coached the secondary at Toledo for 11 seasons.
That’s 31 seasons of coaching defensive backs in college football. One common theme that has run through all of his Iowa secondaries is defensive backs have to tackle.
That wasn’t a problem for Hankins, at least not in attitude. He was, however, 165 pounds when he arrived in Iowa City last year.
Remember, the tackling part is No. 1 or 2 on the list of what Parker needs to see from his potential defensive backs.
“My biggest obstacle was my size,” Hankins said. “I’ve been working on getting my weight up. I’m 185 now and I’m still working on it.”
So then the next part is the mentality it takes as a 165-pound freshman cornerback to throw your body into tackling.
This is probably the answer that has Hankins in the mix to become Iowa’s next NFL corner. “In the mix,” that’s the qualifier.
“You’ve got to be able to tackle, especially in this defense,” Hankins said. “You don’t want to let anyone down. If you miss a tackle, that’s on you. You give up a big play, it hurts. You’ve got to come up and do the job.”
Even if you’re 165 working on 185 and tackling 225.
“That wasn’t hard,” Hankins said. “It’s just something you’ve got to get done.”
It never hurts to have that Texas swagger around, either.
Huddle Up: Iowa Defensive Backs
CORNERS — No one thought Josh Jackson would hang around after the second-best season (hello, Desmond King) in Iowa defensive back history. The Hawkeyes were going to be young at corner in 2018, and they all knew it 15 minutes after the Pinstripe Bowl. Through personnel packages and injuries, Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia aren’t totally new players. They’ve experienced the speed of the game. That should push them off the shore in 2018. The backups? Josh Turner and Julius Brents still have Bubble Wrap on them, they’re so new.
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Matt Hankins — The 6-1, 185-pounder found some footing in his career in the second half against Purdue last season. It was a rough ride, but, as a defensive back, you can’t take these things personally. Hankins might look long and lean, but he tackles with attitude.
Michael Ojemudia — The 6-1, 199-pounder had a rough ride against Michigan State last year. This is where we’ll put the short-memory thing. Ojemudia is stronger this year. He also has long arms and height. With Manny Rugamba’s transfer, Ojemudia has a chance to plant himself at a starting corner spot for two years. He might’ve also had that if Rugamba stayed.
Josh Turner — 5-11, 188-pound redshirt freshman. That’s really the book on him. Let’s check recruiting: 21 offers with Wisconsin, Purdue and Boston College among them. OK, that’s something Parker can work with.
Julius Brents — Here’s Phil Parker from Tuesday: “I definitely think he’s our third guy.” Brents is 6-2, 180. He missed chunks of his junior and senior seasons at Warren Central (Indianapolis). That probably worked in the Hawkeyes’ favor in recruiting. If Parker is saying three weeks into his career he’s a No. 3 CB, that is something that should get your attention.
SAFETIES — Brandon Snyder’s late departure will factor here. He was listed as a co-starter when he decided to leave Iowa and look for playing time at South Dakota State. This lifts sophomore Geno Stone’s profile. He sees ball and gets ball, so three safeties it is. For now.
Jake Gervase — Lost his starting job for a few weeks last year. Didn’t cry. Stayed alert. When the 6-1, 212-pounder’s time came again, he settled in and played steady, physical football. “Buck stops here” kind of guy that Iowa needs but who often goes underappreciated.
Amani Hooker — The 6-0, 210-pounder worked his way into the starting lineup and ... throw away the key. He’ll add some refinement to his game this year. Quick, ball-hawking, aggressive tackler. Tracked down two breakaway plays in the Pinstripe that low-key saved the victory for Iowa.
Geno Stone — Pure ball hawk. Willing tackler. Smart player who sees the game well. It’ll be interesting to see if he can’t cut his way into some personnel packages. He’s listed as the backup at both safety spots.
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