IOWA CITY — Jack Koerner's goals always were kind of modest. It’s probably best to think that way when you’re a walk-on.
Even at the University of Iowa, where there are an infinite amount of stories of success from non-scholarship guys.
“I kind of knew I’d redshirt my first year,” Koerner said. “Then last year, I made it my goal to get on some special teams. This year, I set my goal where I wanted to be on the special teams and at least the two deeps. At least challenge for a starting spot. I just wanted to keep progressing every year. I guess that was the plan, and it’s kind of working out.”
Yeah, kind of. The sophomore walk-on from West Des Moines Dowling has stepped in at free safety for the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes and appears to be making the position his own, even with season-opening starter Kaevon Merriweather back from injury.
No question Koerner is getting better and better. Perhaps his goals at the start were a bit too modest.
“Now the plan is to keep playing good football,” Koerner said. “And keep making everyone around me better.”
The 6-foot, 204-pounder had five tackles last week at Michigan, forced a fumble and had a pass breakup. Arguably his best performance came last month at Iowa State, when he recorded eight tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery.
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You first heard Koerner’s name at the start of fall camp, when it was tossed around by coaches for having made up ground on Merriweather for the starting free safety spot. Replacing Jake Gervase, a former walk-on himself, was one of the bigger concerns for the Iowa defense.
Merriweather earned the start for the opener against Miami (Ohio) but injured a foot in practice late the next week, which forced Koerner into the lineup against Rutgers.
“He has worked extremely hard,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I thought last spring, he really started to play with some confidence back there and looked like a guy that was capable of maybe going out there and helping us as a football team. He has done a good job on special teams, but as a safety, and then certainly this camp, he’s done a really nice job (at safety). When the door opened, he was ready to go. It’s a credit to him.”
“It’s better every game,” Koerner said. “I just feel a little more comfortable, more confident out there. You start to pick up on some stuff that you don’t really see in (practice) and stuff like that.”
He said he is fully aware nothing is just given at Iowa, and that he must continue to perform to keep his starting spot. Especially with Merriweather fully healthy again.
“It goes both ways,” Koerner said. “All through camp, you know that the competition makes us both better. We both know that either one of us can go out there and do a good job. Pushing each other in practice just makes us better.”
He said it also makes him better that he has a guy like Geno Stone back there at safety with him. Stone is an emerging guy at strong safety who looks like he is breaking out into one of the Big Ten Conference’s better defensive backs.
“Geno is incredible,” Koerner said. “It’s really, really helpful when you are out there and completely trust the guy next to you. Also if you make a bad call or something, he’s good enough to be able to check backside and help you out and make sure you are making the right calls and everything. He just makes me play a lot faster and a lot more confident having him back there on the other side.”
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Koerner was part of a powerhouse high school program that has won six consecutive Class 4A state championships. He had scholarship offers from FCS schools like Northern Iowa, South Dakota and South Dakota State.
But retired Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan liked him and eventually coaxed him to give Iowa a try without having a scholarship available. Three years later, Koerner is getting ready to start in a nationally televised night game on ABC against No. 10 Penn State this Saturday.
“It was something where I had to sit down for countless hours with my parents and reflect on,” Koerner said. “It just kind of came down to I wanted to take my shot. I was confident in my ability, and I just didn’t want to look back and regret not taking my shot. If I came here and didn’t play, at least I’d know I took my best shot.”
His best shot is turning out to be enough.
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