As we all watch Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa get picked apart going into the NFL draft, we — meaning all of us who follow Iowa football to the nth — know how much Epenesa meant to the pass rush the last two seasons.
Yes, of course, the better the pass rush, the better the secondary. It didn’t quite hit last year, but usually when the Hawkeyes generate 30-plus sacks, the interceptions also go up. Iowa had 33.0 sacks and just 12 picks last year (remember, head coach Kirk Ferentz wondered aloud at one point in the season about where the picks were, and, hey, he wasn’t wrong). The years of 2018, 2015 and 2009 were 30-plus sack seasons and the interceptions went 20, 19 and 21, respectively.
Iowa lost Epenesa a year early to the NFL. Iowa will have a pass rush in 2020, but it lost a pretty good set of fangs in Epenesa. So, the secondary is going to have to cover a little longer in 2020.
Early NFL entries also hit the secondary. Safety Geno Stone made the call to leave after his junior year, following Amani Hooker, who made the same call after the 2018 season. That’s back-to-back years with an early entry in Iowa’s secondary. Take that along with the fact that Iowa’s secondary gained a position the last two seasons with the rise of the “cash” safety, and maybe there is a depth crunch.
Cornerback Michael Ojemudia also is on his way to the NFL. He likely ran his way onto some draft boards with an excellent performance at the combine, which included a 4.45-second 40-yard dash. According to Pro Football Focus, Ojemudia had the best QB rating against of any Iowa defensive back last season with a 55.9. Ojemudia was Iowa’s best cover corner last season and, of course, that will be missed.
Secondary coach Phil Parker keeps the corner and safety positions stocked. Iowa has the bodies. It should be a hellacious competition for the two open spots (they’re likely “open,” as in no heir apparent, not even within the Hansen Center).
Yes, we have ideas, but if you don’t win the trust, you won’t see the field.
Jack Koerner (jr.) — I don’t think Koerner got a proper introduction.
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The 6-0, 204-pounder pretty much won the free safety gig in camp. The former West Des Moines Dowling prep did suffer an injury in camp and had to sit out the first game against Miami (Ohio). Junior Kaevon Merriweather got the start. Koerner was healthy in week 2 and he held the position down in 2019.
I look at Koerner as a “hammer safety.” This winter, he set a squat record for defensive backs with 515 pounds. He finished second on the team with 81 tackles. You know how we’ve reached the conclusion that Parker has his idea of what he wants/needs out of his 4-3 and/or 4-2-5. Koerner fills the role of Jake Gervase who filled the role of Jordan Lomax who filled the role of Tanner Miller who filled the role of Tyler Sash and so on all the way down to Derek Pagel, who, I think, is a compare for Koerner.
Pro Football Focus rated Keorner fourth on the team in coverage (all four starters in the secondary last year had positive coverage grades). QBs completed just 42.9 percent of their passes toward Koerner. He did lead the Hawkeyes with 14 missed tackles. Iowa’s safeties have been rising in prominence, but the Hawkeyes also missed middle linebacker Kristian Welch for 3 1/2 games, so the safeties were active in run defense, maybe a little more than previous years.
One more PFF number, QB ratings against Koerner were just 69.8 percent, that’s 20 points lower than Geno Stone’s number. Long story short, Koerner fit in really well. Yes, Iowa State was a tough chance. He was part of allowing a big play that kept the Cyclones alive, but he also ended the game by batting down an easy pick. It was a fourth down and ended up winning Iowa a lot of field position.
Next free safety in
I wrote a little about a potential depth crunch. Safety now has three positions. Here are the bodies lining up for playing time next fall: Koerner, Merriweather, redshirt freshman Sebastian Castro (heard good things early on), sophomore Dallas Craddieth, of course sophomore Dane Belton and then ... Reggie Bracy (6-0, 190, and going off his prep tape, probably a slot corner type).
On one hand, yes, that’s totally enough scholarship players to fill three positions. Is it enough to fuel relentless competition? Last summer, Iowa football did a sort of summit with Iowa media. I don’t think I’m sharing anything I’m not supposed to, but when OC Brian Ferentz described the competition that goes into line drills, it got my attention.
Yes, I imagine Tristan Wirfs hated losing to A.J. Epenesa and vice versa. Right on down the line with that.
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I think Iowa is a little thin at safety, but I also don’t know who could get drafted into the position from corner, where there are a lot more bodies.
Kaevon Merriweather (so.) — Yes, everyone has seen highlights of Merriweather doing cool things in basketball. I had the dunk in the pickup basketball game retweeted to me 40 times when it surfaced last summer (think it was last spring/summer). This winter, I saw a coast-to-coast dunk from Merriweather in a prep game (Belleville, Mich.).
How can you not love the athleticism? You absolutely love the athleticism. But ... basketball isn’t football.
Maybe this is automatic. Merriweather did enough to start the opener last year, so maybe he’s pretty high in the food chain that is Iowa defensive back. There were a few injuries. Merriweather suffered a foot injury in camp. I want to say there was another slight injury, but the bottom line is he played in just two games, so he was able to redshirt and save a year after starting the first game (got to love the four-game redshirt rule, added some “chess” thinking to it as far as availability).
Merriweather played on just 30 passing downs last season. He allowed two receptions on two pass attempts, according to PFF. This isn’t a statement saying he can’t cover, it’s saying the sample size is minuscule.
So, with the lack of experience, why Merriweather?
He started the first game. That tells me he’s in the Phil Parker circle of trust. When Koerner came on, the staff made a great call on retaining the year of eligibility for Merriweather. He was around last year. He’ll be a year smarter and that will show in the play. Plus, after Koerner and Belton, Merriweather is Iowa’s most experienced safety.
Again, with six scholarship safeties, there’s not a lot of room for sorting the fish (catch one, catch a bigger one and throw the other fish back). Whomever wins this job will be an important player. Lots to live up to with the departure of Geno Stone.
Next strong safety in
Craddieth or Bracy? Craddieth was a Rivals 4-star recruit. He hasn’t found the footing to make it to the field, seeing just two snaps last season. This will be his redshirt sophomore year, so yes, the football biological clock is screaming right now. If Craddieth comes through, forget the safety depth talk. It would be mission accomplished.
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Bracy had just nine offers according to Rivals. You know that Iowa has broken through in recruiting the southeast, with Tyler Goodson, a Georgia native, becoming the first true freshman to lead the Hawkeyes in rushing in the school’s history. I’m interested to see how a safety from St. Paul’s High School in Mobile, Ala., might fit in. Again, his tape shows the St. Paul’s staff moving him all over the defense. I have to think that’s a good thing.
Dane Belton (so.) — Through six games last season, the true freshman from Tampa, Fla., saw only 11 snaps. During the last seven games, Belton got 421 snaps. He went from special teams to averaging 61.4 snaps in the final seven games.
You might roll your eyes at charting snap counts. The very elementary point of snap counts is “who’s playing?” From there, you are able to extrapolate value. It’s not often you see curves like this. The last one I remember was OT Tristan Wirfs’ freshman year. Back in 2017, one play cost you the redshirt. Iowa had a pretty good idea Wirfs would be able to handle himself, but it also had two senior tackles who were lost to the season due to injury. After Michigan State 2017, Wirfs started and never stopped starting.
Did Iowa have to see outside linebacker not work in coverage again? That happened against Penn State. Nick Niemann was assigned to cover wide receiver K.J. Hamler. The Nittany Lions found that matchup and got a 22-yard TD pass out of it. We learned about the 4-2-5 in 2018, when Wisconsin did the same thing against Niemann. All of the sudden, there was cash and there was Amani Hooker, who earned Big Ten defensive back of the year at the position.
After Penn State, there suddenly was Belton. Of course, the next week was Purdue. The Boilermakers attacked Iowa’s secondary mercilessly for wins in the last two meetings between the Big Ten West squads. Parker wasn’t going to mess around, it was cash for Purdue and, really, the rest of the season.
Belton was vulnerable in coverage as the newbie. QBs completed 75 percent of passes thrown his way and had a 103.8 rating against, according to PFF. Belton is 6-1, 190 pounds, and he played that big against the run, with just four missed tackles in coverage, which, if you think about his crash-course curve, is pretty great.
I hate to put this on a player, but think about the next step for Belton. Going into 2020, he’ll have a year of coverage knowledge, he’ll have a year with strength coach Chris Doyle. He’ll enter camp as an established player but not a “made” player. He’ll still have to earn. There’s no reason to believe he won’t. Belton could be a player you see make an impact.
Next cash safety in
I’m drafting A.J. Lawson into this. Who? OK, he needs an intro. Lawson signed in December. He’s a 6-2, 180-pounder from MacArthur High School in Decatur, Ill. (Iowa is really smart to hunt the hinterlands between Iowa City and Chicago. It’s not a gusher of talent there, but Iowa finds Iowa players in this region.)
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Ten offers for Lawson, including Minnesota, show that there was demand. Parker has shown us how cool the longer corners are and that’s clearly his preference, but someone is going to have to play safety. At 6-2, 180, I like the size Lawson has to offer. With five or six safeties for three positions, this also might be Lawson’s quickest ride to playing time.
Matt Hankins (sr.) — When Hankins first broke into the lineup in 2017, I was immediately impressed with his willingness to tackle. During Kids Day before the 2017 season, there was a play on the goal line where one of Iowa’s RBs seemed to have the corner turned. Hankins tracked the play and put himself in position to make a hit. In the back of my mind, I was doing math. Hankins was maybe 175 pounds at the time.
He got in perfect tackle posture and made a spectacular play. He forced the back into trying to run him over and he stood up. Nowhere to hide, he delivered a strike.
Toughness has always been there for the 6-0, 180-pounder. Also, in my opinion, Hankins has been Iowa’s best cover corner when he’s been healthy.
Hankins finished fifth on the team with 58 tackles last season, adding value. According to PFF, Hankins allowed a 59.2 percent completion rate and QBs scored an average efficiency rating of 73.8. Hankins had two picks.
He’s been an overall solid starter for three years. Can he have a year that elevates him in the draft? Well, we’ve seen how that works, kind of. Desmond King put himself on the national map in 2015 with his eight picks. He stayed in school and was drafted in the fifth round. Josh Jackson had one of those years in 2017. He had eight picks. He didn’t win the Thorpe Award like King did, but he did leave school with a year of eligibility left and was drafted in the second round. Now, who’s in a better position for their second contract? We don’t have to go here, but you know it’s King, who was first-team All-Pro as a defensive back and second-team All-Pro as a punt returner last year.
Hankins is capable of having one of those years. With an opening at the other corner spot, you do wonder if QBs will challenge him and opt to pick on the other corner, but that scenario is getting a little ahead of ourselves.
Hankins is the player Iowa hung on to after the “Texas Exodus” the Hawkeyes had in recruiting a few years ago. The Hawkeyes hit a vein of Texas skill players. They committed early and then cooled and eventually decommitted. Some of those were very public. Hello, running back Eno Benjamin. This isn’t to pick old wounds, but Iowa did find huge value in Hankins, who’ll be a three-year starter this fall.
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Next left cornerback in
Iowa has a lot of corners. Hankins, Julius Brents, Riley Moss, D.J. Johnson, Daraun McKinney, Terry Roberts and Brendan Deasfernandes, I’m putting Johnson as the heir apparent who’ll probably see at least a few snaps. Johnson started last season as a the cash safety and then the next week at ISU, he won Big Ten freshman of the week with eight tackles and two pass breakups.
Johnson saw nearly all 191 of his snaps in the first five games of the season. Talking with Parker in San Diego before the Holiday Bowl, he touched on one of the big, important factors for him in deciding who plays — have you earned his trust? That’s probably the charge for Johnson, a sophomore, in 2020.
Riley Moss (jr.) — Speaking of circle of trust, Moss is in it. He got chewed up as a true freshman against Purdue in 2018. Hey, the Boilermakers and QB David Blough were out for blood, got the ball out before the pass rush did its thing and went to town to the tune of four TDs and 333 yards passing.
Then, Moss didn’t play much for nine games. An early-season injury last year didn’t help.
So, Purdue 2019. The Boilers targeted Hankins in the first half. He was targeted successfully several times. So in the second half, Parker sent Hankins to the bench and put Moss in. Iowa and Moss knew Purdue would target him, and it did.
On his third play in the game, Moss (6-1, 191) picked off a third-and-8 pass at Iowa’s 40 on the first drive of the second half. With a first down at Purdue’s 28, Iowa scored a TD and was able to elude Purdue and end a two-game losing streak to the Boilers.
This didn’t lead to a ton of playing time for Moss. Hankins went back in the next week. Moss topped out at 70 snaps against Minnesota (also recorded a pick in that game), but hardly played against Nebraska and in the bowl game vs. USC.
Of course, Iowa had Ojemudia.
So, this, at least in my mind, becomes a competition between Moss, Johnson and Julius Brents. There will be a ton of competitive reps in fall camp. Moss has demonstrated he’s earned the trust and that’s what I’m leaning into. I wouldn’t bet on it because Moss’ snaps dwindled at the end of the season, but his foot is clearly in the door.
Next right cornerback in
I’m putting Brents here with a huge caveat: He could win the job. He’s 6-3, 203 pounds. He started four games and made some waves as a true freshman in 2018.
2019? I’ll admit, I’m not around the team a ton, but Brents wasn’t dressed for practice pretty much every time I was able to check out a practice last year. Parker mentioned something about a knee injury. Something certainly stunted Brents’ 2019. I had him for one snap.
The good news is he’s still a sophomore. The caveat to the caveat is health. If Brents is healthy, he’ll help somewhere and maybe even win this job. Before Moss made his way back to corner, he spent a lot of time in the fall working at cash safety.
If Brents can unfurl the way it looked like he was going to in 2018, the Hawkeyes are ahead of the curve here on several fronts. They’d have Brents for two more seasons (maybe probably) at corner. It’d be a huge shot in the arm for depth. Moss can maybe make a run at a safety spot (remember, safety depth). Johnson will have a spot (Hankins’) in 2020 if he progresses. And younger corners can fight it out for spots in the nickel/dime packages that still do show up maybe 7 percent of the time.
Will this be a 20-interception secondary? It’s possible, but probably not. With a pass rush looking to replace Epenesa, the better question is can this secondary hold up its end of the bargain. That is possible.
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