IOWA CITY — Iowa found gold last year when it had Amani Hooker slide about 10 yards closer to the line of scrimmage and play the “star” position.
It’s a safety/linebacker hybrid position that fit Hooker’s skill so well that he’ll skip his senior year and now preparing for the NFL Draft.
Hooker moving from strong safety to the hybrid position (“star” or “cash” or whatever you want to call it) was the most obvious Iowa has been in shifting personnel and packages to defend spread offenses. The Hawkeyes played their first four games in a base 4-3. After Wisconsin, Iowa shifted to a 4-2-5 alignment with the Hooker move and a linebacker being squeezed out of the picture.
Spread offenses like to stretch defenses and test speed. Many come out of a 10 (one back, no tight end) or 11 (one back, one tight end) personnel group. Yes, Iowa will have arm-wrestling games against Wisconsin (power running game) and Michigan (more of a spread that leans to power, a power spread, if you will), but the majority of college football offenses and the majority of high school football programs that put players into college run spread offenses.
It’s speed and space and Iowa’s move last fall gave it a better chance to defend. And this isn’t going away.
“That’s part of our DNA now moving forward, for sure,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Just how we put it together is going to be the big question.”
Now, how many linebackers does Iowa need? The 4-3 isn’t dead yet. If the Hawkeyes don’t find a star who can do the job, focus will shift to junior outside linebacker Nick Niemann, who is the classic Iowa OLB, can play on the line of scrimmage and carry slot receivers in coverage.
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However this shakes out — Iowa doesn’t have to know right now, it’s spring practice — here are seven players whose futures will shape what Iowa’s defense looks like.
Let’s see, 6-4, 210-pound linebacker from Ohio. With 25 offers. Nope, Jestin Jacobs was never going to be an easy get for the Hawkeyes.
Michigan State and Nebraska offered, but lets focus on Ohio State. Yes, the Buckeyes did offer. They are the Buckeyes and Columbus is just more than an hour from Jacobs’ hometown of Clayton, Ohio.
Jacobs made an unofficial visit to Ohio State during the weekend of the Michigan game. Hey, that went well for the Buckeyes. The official visit came on Dec. 7. It wasn’t a big deal. The only big headline that could’ve come out of that would’ve been a “flip.” (Yes, we should all hate that term, it gives a nonchalant vibe to something that might be the furthest thing from nonchalant.)
No flip. Instead ...
“I saw myself being a Hawkeye for a long time,” Jacobs told HawkeyeReport.com. “Iowa is a great place with even better people. I can’t wait to get there and get to work.”
So, with that Ohio State nuisance (I’m kidding) out of the way, Jacobs is now enrolled at Iowa and going through spring practice. Almost. Ferentz announced at the beginning of spring that Jacobs had surgery for an undisclosed ailment. He’ll miss spring, but should be ready for summer conditioning in June.
That’s not the headline. The headline is the resolve Jacobs and his family showed sticking with the Hawkeyes. It doesn’t make him a superhero or saint, but it does show you a little bit of what he’s made of.
It did for Ferentz.
“I think more excited now that they made a run at him, another school made a run at him, and I think there were some people in the community obviously that would have hoped he would have gone there, but he stood his ground,” Ferentz said. “He was firmly committed to us, and that certainly makes us feel good, and that’s not easy when you’re 17, 18 years old to make a firm commitment and then stick with it when there’s maybe some outside pressure to do something differently. So, that gives us a little bit of insight into his makeup, and for a linebacker that’s what you’re looking for, a guy that’s strong minded.”
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Noteworthy offers: Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa State, Northwestern
Depth chart in 2019?: Maybe. The spring surgery might complicate things. Also, a 210-pound linebacker needs to put on some weight. Maybe. What if Jacobs gets a shot at the star position? Maybe it’s a long shot, but he might have the range a star safety needs. At 6-4, sure, that’d be a huge safety, but one who also could cover a lot of ground and whose long arms will count.
Also, he could start really hitting the weights and then who knows.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Christian Kirksey
This one wasn’t difficult. Kirksey was Iowa’s quintessential outside linebacker. He could cover between the hashes and play on the line of scrimmage. He made impactful plays on all levels of defense and on special teams in his early years at Iowa. Another comparison might be Ben Niemann. Jacobs is an old school Norm Parker OLB starter kit. Oh yes, Iowa can use that kind of skill.
Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “Anytime your hometown school comes calling, you’ve got to worry. You never know. It is what it is, we don’t beat Ohio State very often in recruiting. I think that speaks volumes of the relationship Kelvin Bell, Seth Wallace and Phil Parker built with Jestin and his family, as well as coach Ferentz. That’s 100 percent the reason he stayed with us and signed with us and will be here in a month. Jestin is a different kid. He thinks differently. He’s not wowed by all of that. He committed to us for a reason. He told us from day one to the last day, ‘Coach I have a plan and it involves being an Iowa Hawkeye and I’m going to come out and execute that plan.’ That’s refreshing to hear. As impressive as he is on the field, he’s more impressive off it. That’s a lot of our guys. All the guys we sign are talented, but we’ve got to make sure we don’t miss on the person. That’s the thing. We’ve got to protect the integrity of our locker room downstairs and our culture of Iowa football. That’s always going to be first and foremost. Just with the way he thinks, you’re excited to get him out here.”
Six-foot-4, 210 pounds, probably some position flexibility? “Yeah, I would say he’s a guy who could play all three spots if we needed him to. Realistically.”
ESPN rankings: 39th-ranked outside linebacker, 47th-ranked in the region and 15th in the state of Ohio. 20-yard shuttle time was 4.34 seconds (3.93 was the best; 4.87 worst). Vertical jump was 35.3 inches (41.2 was best; 24.9 worst). Power throw was 41.0 feet (best 45.5; worst 25.0).
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My take: On defense, Jacobs played a lot of standup outside linebacker at the line of scrimmage, just as he would at Iowa. What he did differently was rush the QB a lot more. In doing that, I’m not sure his future isn’t on the edge. Has a natural slither good pass rushers need and is relentless. He’ll need strength at Iowa, but on his level in Ohio, Jacobs slapped OL hands down and kept what look to be pretty special feet moving. His first step was faster than everyone’s. Seems to have a high understanding of leverage and where the defense wants plays to spill. The Hudl tape included a beautiful blocked punt. Those are always cool.
Cedar Falls linebacker Jack Campbell did end up with 3 stars from Rivals, but he did get a late look at a ratings bump.
From Rivals recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt: “At the outside linebacker position, Iowa signee Jack Campbell and Notre Dame signee Jack Kiser both looked impressive in late senior season film evaluation. On the offensive line Michigan State signee Nick Samac and Purdue signee Cam Craig likewise showed good progression over previous evaluations, as did Missouri defensive end signee Arvell Ferguson. Each of those prospects is rated 3-stars, but could see their rankings climb at their positions and within their respective states.”
Campbell, whose dad, Dave, played O-line at Northern Iowa, did a ton for Cedar Falls. In his three seasons on varsity, the Tigers were 27-6. His 168 tackles last season is a school record. His 338 tackles are a career record. As a senior, he had 12.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, five pass breakups and two blocked kicks.
Campbell, who also was the homecoming king, had four offers from the regionals — Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota and Northern Iowa. He committed to the Hawkeyes in March 2018.
Campbell is an athletic 6-4, 215. He throws down dunks in hoops. Speaking of regional, Aaron Kampman was a large linebacker from just west of Cedar Falls in Aplington-Parkersburg. Kampman picked the Hawkeyes. Played linebacker his first two seasons. Kirk Ferentz came in and suggested defensive end. Kampman finished his NFL career as a pass rusher with 58.0 sacks and a lot of money, including a $21 million extension with the Packers.
The question has been asked with Campbell. Here it is from the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
“Knowing the staff at Iowa and their strength coach (Chris) Doyle and how they develop people, it will be interesting to see the path he takes,” Cedar Falls coach Brad Remmert said. “I think he’s athletic enough that he can play standing up. He’s also got the framework that if they chose a different path, he can put his hand down as a d-end and play. All signs point to him having a great career at the University of Iowa.”
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Noteworthy offers: Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, Northern Iowa
Depth chart in 2019?: Probably not. Iowa has a 10 scholarship linebackers in spring drills. If defensive coordinator Phil Parker finds a star hybrid, maybe Iowa only needs two linebackers.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Aaron Kampman
No, this isn’t me saying Campbell is headed to defensive end. Sure, it’s a possibility, but so is linebacker. For now. Beyond that, Campbell has a similar body type to Kampman. A 6-4 frame that might be able to pack on defensive end weight.
Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “He is fun to watch. He is a relentless, relentless guy on the football field. His film, of all the seniors, was probably the most fun to watch. His motor never stops, absolutely never stops. And if you know Jack, you get it. It makes complete sense. In person, Jack’s kind of quiet at first. Once you start talking with him, he opens up. He fits everything we’re about here, he really does. He is a completely selfless, humble kid who just wants to come to work. Nothing else matters to him. His dad was a football player at UNI, a big guy. We’re really looking forward to Jack. Jack is an old-school Iowa linebacker and it will be fun to watch him. He’ll be fun to watch.”
ESPN rankings: 104th-ranked outside linebacker, 121st-ranked in the region and 7th in the state of Iowa.
My take: On the first play of his Hudl tape, Campbell knocks a lead blocker 3 yards backward and onto his back and then souffles the runner. He can handle contact from O-linemen and keep himself alive to make a play. He really attacks blocks. Sometimes, Campbell goes for the big hit, but he’s like 95 percent wrapping his arms around runners. Tenacious tackler. Seems to really enjoy it. And most runners he hits look like they’ve been tazed.
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When Yahweh Jeudy first moved to Florida from Haiti, his parents remained on the island. When visiting his parents, according to this GoPowercat.com post, he developed a deep interest in flying.
The Navy was in the conversation when Jeudy, a 6-2, 210-pound linebacker from Pompano Beach, Fla., first picked Kansas State.
A lot of Iowa fans followed Bill Snyder’s K-State teams. In 27 seasons as the Wildcats’ head coach, Snyder brought the program back from rooted futility to national prominence. Iowa fans still might follow the Cats. Waterloo native Chris Klieman was named head coach after Snyder retired after last season.
With Jeudy looking around, Iowa offered in mid-December. Two days after visiting, he committed to the Hawkeyes. Jeudy had 10 offers, including K-State, Syracuse and Navy.
It looks like Iowa did some tag-team recruiting in this cycle. You saw how it was Kelvin Bell, Seth Wallace and Phil Parker working on the recruiting of Jestin Jacobs. This was along the same lines. Parker, Wallace and wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland, who recruits Florida, worked on Jeudy’s recruitment.
“I currently play inside linebacker, but it all depends on my progress and development,” Jeudy told HawkeyeReport.com. “They told me the opportunity is there, I just have to seize it.”
Rocky Miyares is Cardinal Gibbons’ linebackers coach. He’s also the school’s rugby coach. Of course, that pulled in Jeudy.
“It’s not just confusion; it’s organized chaos,” Jeudy told 7 News Miami.
Jeudy was the team MVP of the 2016 state championship team.
“If it’s proposed to me is after my football career, definitely, I’ll purse that, absolutely,” he said. “I come from Haiti, you know what I mean? I was given an opportunity here, so ... doing the best I can, why not?”
Noteworthy offers: Kansas State, Syracuse, Navy
Depth chart in 2019?: Probably not. Iowa linebacker isn’t a finished product going into 2019. Nick Niemann brings the most versatility. And if Iowa goes with a 4-2-5 personnel group, Niemann probably will be the middle linebacker and maybe the only LB on the field. It’s going to be interesting to see how the opportunities show up at this spot.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Pat Angerer
During his senior year at Bettendorf, Angerer lined up everywhere on defense. He traveled at a different speed than everyone else. Jeudy runs through reads quickly. He’ll need refinement there. But once the race of the play starts, Jeudy finds a way to get to where he needs to be and he finishes.
Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “Coach Copeland was the lead recruiter for Yahweh. Coach Copeland has known about Yahweh for a long time now. Credit to coach Copeland. We had talked about taking three linebackers the whole year. We had Jack and Justin committed. We didn’t want to just take anyone. We finally thought, if we find the right guy, we’ll take the right guy. If not, we’ll roll into next year and make due. Coach Copeland did a good job each time saying Yahweh is a guy who fits who we are. Finally, in contact period, we had a chance for coach Wallace and coach Parker to go down and meet Yahweh and see him. They fell in love with the kid. He’s mature beyond his years. He thinks so differently than most guys his age. Incredibly impressive kid. Very appreciative of everything, very humble. Awesome mom. When we got him up here on campus, everyone fell in love with him. The coaching change at K-State may have helped us land him. We’ll gladly take him and get him up here in June. ... You love the rugby background. From our understanding, he’s a high-level rugby player, which brings a little different evaluation of things as you’re looking at him. He’s just an incredible kid. The way he thinks, the way he goes about things, that’s what impresses you most about this kid. Also, big hands. He has 4X gloves. The only other person I know who had that in my time here was Brandon Smith. Not many 4X glove guys. He’s a big, thick kid. It’ll be fun to get him here. He’s another guy who soaks things up. He’s a football junkie. It’s impressive how he operates away from the football field.”
ESPN rankings: 114th-ranked outside linebacker, 621st-ranked in the region and 202nd in the state of Florida.
My take: Jeudy lined up in a few different places for Cardinal Gibbons. Lots at linebacker. Some at DE. Some with his hand on the ground over the center. His best thing was that he served as the stopper. When teams tried to stretch Jeudy to the outside and get him out of position, he kept plays on his inside shoulder and allowed his teammates to help in pursuit. That’s how it’s supposed to work for a good edge linebacker. He needs to start running through contact and keeping his legs moving. On the flip side, Jeudy seems to always have his eyes on where the ball carrier has the ball. He consistently attacks back and knows how to use his shoulder and helmet to get it out. Has pretty good redirect sense. If an OL moves him, Jeudy keeps his head up and stays in plays.
Dane Belton ended being an offer machine last year.
Playing for Jesuit High School in Tampa, Fla., you see why Belton received 26 offers, including Louisville, West Virginia and Maryland. The 6-0, 185-pound all-around defensive back prospect finished his career with 12 interceptions, including four INTs, seven pass breakups and four TDs as a senior.
One pretty good hook for Iowa here was Belton’s dad, Danny. He grew up in southeast Iowa (near Keokuk in the early 80s). Hayden Fry had the Hawkeyes in the national spotlight. Danny Belton attended Iowa from 1987-89.
“I have always loved the Hawkeyes and every time they are on TV, I would watch them and cheer for them,” Danny Belton told HawkeyeReport.com.
Danny Belton took his son to camps at Iowa and Iowa State before his junior season. The offers started coming during his junior season, with hometown South Florida being the first.
Belton received an Iowa offer in June 2018. He visited campus and committed soon thereafter. Dane Belton told HawkeyeReport.com about the phone call with the offer. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker was on the line.
“Coach Parker is kind of old school,” Belton said. “We talked about how I would fit into their schemes and how they would use me and then he told me he was offering me a scholarship.”
Parker’s track record of building defensive backs who stick in the NFL worked for him here.
“That was a big thing. He knows what he’s doing,” Belton said. “He played defensive back and he’s coached it and knows what it takes to get to the next level. He can help me to achieve what I want in football.”
Noteworthy offers: West Virginia, Louisville, Maryland
Depth chart in 2019?: It’s always a “maybe” with defensive backs now. In the last three or so years, we’ve seen true freshmen (last year it was Julius Brents and Riley Moss) blow past veterans on the depth chart and then some transfers. You just never know who’s going to “hit,” and maybe that’s why Parker has no qualms about giving young talent a shot at the field if they deserve it.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Kind of Desmond King-ish.
Belton has a bigger build and might very well end up a safety for the Hawkeyes. He also seems to have a little more speed than King, but what made King the Thorpe Award winner for a 12-2 team was the way he tracked the ball at high speed and went and got it. Belton has that. Body control is an element that separates elite defensive backs. It’s a great thing to have.
Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “Dane is a guy who has some flexibility back there. Dane was in our camp two years ago. We don’t get many kids from Florida coming to our football camps. His dad was originally from Iowa. That was the connection there. He was in our camp and he had a good year. Not a guy we were ready to pull the trigger on out of camp, but during the year we watched him blow up a little bit. So, coach Parker, coach Wallace and coach Copeland checked him out. They all fell in love with the kid. We had a chance to get him on campus. Again, another humble, quiet kid who just goes about his business. Not into the flash and the pizazz. He gets who we are. Some position flexibility there. We’ll see where he ends up. I don’t think he’s going to just be nailed down to one spot back there right now.”
ESPN rankings: 54th-ranked safety, 388th-ranked in the region and 128th in the state of Ohio. 20-yard shuttle time was 4.12 seconds (4.09 was the best; 4.84 worst). Vertical jump was 30.4 inches (43.6 was best; 26.3 worst). Power throw was 42.5 feet (best 44.4; worst 26.0).
My take: You see lots of highlights as a punt returner. You have to like that. It also adds to the Desmond comparison. Belton is a sound tackler. He gets low, wraps and gets his head/shoulder through the hit. Belton plays with speed and reads and diagnoses plays at a quick rate. That’s some “student of the game” stuff. He does probably end up at safety/star. Very strong athlete. Great quickness between the hashes. That kind of describes Amani Hooker’s 2018 season with the Hawkeyes.
Iowa runs on preps from the Chicago suburbs. Some of the best Hawkeyes including both of the Chucks (Chuck Long was from Wheaton North and Chuck Hartlieb Marian Central Catholic) are from the Chicago ’burbs.
Of course, lots of programs roll in and out of Chicago. Talent has been pulled out of Illinois by SEC schools. The competition has maybe slowed the frequency, but Iowa still is alive in the burbs.
Castro is proof. The speed schools didn’t come calling, but Castro was in regional demand. He received offers from Indiana, Iowa State, Northern Illinois and Cincinnati.
The offer list only tells part of the story. Castro probably shut down a few offers after committing early to the Hawkeyes almost a year ago (April 2018).
The production is the fun part. The 6-1, 198-pounder did a little bit of everything.
He played safety, quarterback, receiver and running back. At quarterback, he passed for 402 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 618 yards and nine TDs. At safety, he totaled 95 tackles, including six for loss, with six interceptions, forced four fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He didn’t start playing safety until his sophomore season. He had 11 interceptions in his career. Here’s a stat that will get your attention: Castro forced six fumbles during his career.
He was named player of the year in the Daily Southtown.
“They’re going to love him,” Richards High School coach Tony Sheehan told the Daily Southtown. “The little things he did in games just blows your mind. When he played quarterback, he would pitch the ball to the running back and take it upon himself to be the lead blocker. You don’t see that.
“The other thing was there were times when he played safety and the other team would complete a screen pass on the other side of the field. All of a sudden, Sebastian comes flying from across the field to make the tackle for a 1-yard gain.”
Those are very Hawkeye kind of things to do on a football field.
Noteworthy offers: Iowa State, Minnesota, Indiana
Depth chart in 2019?: Maybe. If a corner flips to safety — which could happen with senior corner Michael Ojemudia — Iowa might not need another safety in 2019. The spring depth chart at safety, however, has Kaevon Merriweather as a first-year starter at strong safety and walk-ons backing up both safety positions. Plus, it’s hard to tell who could get pulled into the battle at star position. Kirk Ferentz indicated recently that the position will be used in 2019 and the competition there is ongoing and changing almost on a daily basis.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: This isn’t a direct comparison, but Castro’s “see ball, tackle ball” is kind of Josey Jewell, the consensus All-American linebacker from the 2017 season.
This was the clincher for me. Here’s Sheehan from an interview with HawkeyeReport.com: “He has a nose for the ball. He reads the offenses very well and studies them. He has speed and closes like no one else. He is powerful and packs a punch.”
Safety or linebacker, you can’t have too much of that.
Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “Sebastian had a great senior year. He’s a guy we’ve known about for the last couple of years. Brian Ferentz was his lead recruiter. He did a really good job with Sebastian. Again, along with the theme, Sebastian wasn’t really into the recruiting process. He’s not a social media guy. He’s not into that stuff. He’s just kind of a guy who wants to go to work and get after it. He’s a leader by example for sure and you see that on his senior film. He’s all over the film. He played quarterback, safety. You talk to surrounding coaches in the Chicago area and they’re all like, ‘Hey, you guys are getting a heckuva football player in Sebastian.’ You talk to people in the school and they say you’re getting a heckuva kid. You get that. You feel good about the kid. He’s a quiet assassin, if you will. You don’t want to make him mad on the football field. It’ll be good to get him here and throw him in the secondary with coach Parker.”
ESPN rankings: 72nd-ranked safety, 111th-ranked in the region and 19th in the state of Illinois. 20-yard shuttle time was 4.36 seconds (4.09 was the best; 4.84 worst). Vertical jump was 31.6 inches (43.6 was best; 26.3 worst). Power throw was 34.0 feet (best 44.0; worst 26.0).
My take: I think this excerpt from the Southtown story kind of says what you need to know:
More than one opposing coach noted how it sounded different when Castro tackled someone.
He laughed when that thought was relayed to him.
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” Castro said. “That started when I was playing peewees for the Worth-Ridge Panthers. All we did was hit in practice.
“When you’re going to make a tackle, you have to go through the player. You have to finish the tackle.”
There is potential for a Phil Parker special here. When Defensive Back Yoda starts recruiting Michigan and Ohio late in the recruiting process, he sees something he really likes.
The veteran defensive coordinator/secondary coach has a trail of victories with the late signees. Maybe Desmond King wasn’t late late, but Parker waded past a host of MAC offers and got the Los Angeles Chargers All-Pro. Micah Hyde, same deal and down the line.
So, Daraun McKinney gets that bump.
McKinney did defensive back stuff for River Rouge (Mich.) High School. He picked off seven passes in his final two seasons.
Iowa is a program that will sniff out special teams value. There wasn’t a lot of sniffing here. McKinney’s talent in the return game is apparent.
The 5-11, 185-pounder returned 12 punts and 11 kickoffs for TDs as a four-year letterwinner for River Rouge.
As a junior, McKinney set state records for kick returns for TDs (seven) and punt returns for TDs (five) in a season. That’s some Devin Hester type stuff.
“Daraun is a playmaker,” River Rouge coach Corey Parker said. “He plays with a lot of confidence and a chip on his shoulder. In the open field, he’s dangerous because of his ability to stop and start very quickly. He’s a team player who has a great career ahead of him. The sky is the limit.”
In a 2017 interview with the Detroit News, McKinney said he was timed at a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at a Toledo camp. And then he added, “ ... but I think I’ve gotten faster. I’m one of the reliable speed guys on the team and they look at me in that area, and I’m happy to be in that position. Really, it gives me the opportunity for me to define myself on how I play the game. I never planned to have the amazing season on special teams that I’ve had, but it just shows the athleticism I have and the vision to get things done.”
He also said his favorite role is kick return. He’ll probably get a chance to do that at Iowa.
Noteworthy offers: Northern Illinois, Indiana, Cincinnati, Toledo
Depth chart in 2019?: Always a maybe with defensive backs. In McKinney’s regard, it might be more than a maybe. He probably won’t move wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette out of kick return. Smith-Marsette led the Big Ten with 29.5 yards per return and was named the Big Ten return specialist of year. But there is an opening in punt return.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: It’s hard to get away from Desmond King because of the Michigan thing and the return game explosiveness. What else? McKinney is physical in coverage. Plays with strong hands and has tremendous field awareness and recovery speed.
Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes: “He’ll start at corner, obviously. The thing that impressed coach Parker the most when he saw him play, they were playing a bigger-name team with a big-name receiver who was signed today. Daraun had no problem with the matchup. The demeanor he showed in that football game ... You want to see how guys are going to respond in situations like that. That’s what drew coach Parker to Daraun probably the most at that point. When you get a chance to meet him and talk with him, it makes you feel good. You feel good about the person we got and the type of kid he is. It’ll be exciting to get him up here. The return game? That’s a whole other element. It’s often overlooked by fans, but 23 return touchdowns, that’s pretty impressive there.”
ESPN rankings: 151st-ranked cornerback, 194th-ranked in the region and 42nd in the state of Michigan. Overall SPARQ rating 93.6 (142.74 was the best; 60.48 the worst). 20-yard shuttle time was 4.44 seconds (3.96 was the best; 4.72 worst). Vertical jump was 32.9 inches (45.2 was best; 26.8 worst). Power throw was 38.0 feet (best 44.5; worst 25.0).
My take: As a returner, McKinney shows a high degree of confidence. It feels like he has an idea of what he wants to do with the ball. He doesn’t lose steps to indecision. Keeps an idea of what’s going on in the backfield and does a good job of using that info in-play. McKinney seems to pick up on how stressed a QB is by the rush and where his inevitable back-foot duck might float with gift-wrap on it. Yes, the interceptions look easy, but it’s the read and having the confidence to know when a play is blowing up. Not a lot of tackle highlights. McKinney has met Phil Parker. He knows that’s rules No. 1 and No. 2 of Iowa Defensive Back Fight Club.
Jermari Harris visited Iowa in early December. Maybe the Lombard, Ill., native expected an offer.
It didn’t happen. This is the age of two national signing periods, so it wasn’t over for Harris, who had eight interceptions, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles as a senior for Montini Catholic last season.
It happened for Harris just before the February signing period. The Hawkeyes cut it close, offering the 6-1, 175-pounder on Jan. 30. Harris committed to Iowa on Feb. 4. Harris had 10 offers, mostly from FCS schools.
Northern Illinois also offered before signing day, but Harris had an eye on a school.
“Coach (Thomas) Hammock from NIU called and offered me a scholarship,” Harris told NBC Sports Chicago. “The NIU offer was a real surprise and that was the first time I heard from NIU. NIU wants me to make an official visit in two weeks. I’m visiting Ball State this weekend and then NIU the following week.”
“Iowa has still been recruiting me pretty hard. They have been in school a few times and Coach (Phil) Parker is planning to be in my school tomorrow (Thursday),” Harris said. “Coach Parker said he wants to see me in person. Iowa is planning to take one more defensive back in this class and they are telling me that I’m high up on their recruiting board. Pitt is also planning to be in school tomorrow. Pitt along with Nebraska are a few of the newer schools who have started to show some late interest in me.”
Maybe the NFL didn’t totally force the Hawkeyes’ hand here, but head coach Kirk Ferentz did say that Amani Hooker’s departure opened the door for Harris. Iowa was willing to wait and hold on to the scholarship, but it liked Harris too much to pass.
“It really got down to about three or four guys,” Ferentz said. “And Phil went out and went through his process and tried to gather as much information as he could to make sure, a) that we could find a guy that we felt really good about and, b), hopefully that would mesh up with what the player was thinking, the prospect was thinking. And we’re happy the way it turned out.”
Noteworthy offers: Northern Illinois, North Dakota State, Ball State
Depth chart in 2019?: Again, a maybe. Harris might be coming in a little light, but that hasn’t been a deal-breaker. Again, the competition is fierce. Iowa did find nice balance in this class with two corners and two safeties.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Michael Ojemudia
Ojemudia will either be a three-year starting cornerback for the Hawkeyes or he’ll be a star safety next season. Ojemudia started a little bigger than Harris (6-2, 190 pounds), but Harris has the long arms and levers that Iowa seems to prefer at corner.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz: “Yeah, that seems to be a good formula for us finding guys in January. He was here in December. We had an open practice before the recruiting period shut down there. Came to a bowl practice with his mom and grandfather. And we’ve all been really impressed with him throughout the whole process.
“So, what ended up happening with Amani coming out, we decided that was an area we would take another scholarship player if we had the right guy.”
ESPN rankings: 135th-ranked cornerback, 168th-ranked in the region and 30th in the state of Illinois.
My take: Seems to have experience in zone coverage, which will help him at Iowa. Beautiful hands and incredibly fluid on the field. Field sense is there. Has his head up with an eye in the backfield. Really love how he breaks on the ball. That can help with interceptions, obviously, but remember safety Jake Gervase in the Outback Bowl? He had three pretty crucial pass breakups because he kept plays in front of him and was money in his breaks all day in that game. Harris does a lot of things Iowa defensive backs do. He plays zone and man. He played press and off wide receivers. Seems to have a high-level understanding of switching off coverages. Played some wide receiver, so he has a feel for what that side of the ball wants to accomplish. Very sticky and instinctive in coverage.
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