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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz breaks down the ACL tear of his starting free safety.

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Before getting too caught up in what Brandon Snyder’s ACL tear means for the 2017 Iowa football team, let’s first take a moment to reflect on what this must feel like for the junior safety.

That was certainly at the front of Kirk Ferentz’s mind Friday as he spoke about the biggest story of the night following the Hawkeyes’ open practice at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines.

A small-town kid from northwest Iowa who walked on at his dream school instead of taking another scholarship offer, Snyder worked his way into the starting lineup at free safety. He was awarded a full-ride scholarship before last season.

He’s had rough moments and great moments on the field.

But he’s done everything the right way off it.

Word has it, he was having a great spring.

And now, with an innocent-seeming injury during a Thursday special-teams drill, a sizable chunk of his remaining college-football career appears to be done.

“Our players spend so much more time preparing, meeting, training, than they do competing,” Ferentz said. “The opportunity to compete is so special. It’s just so limited, the time of it. You can imagine how disappointing it is for the individual.”

Snyder didn’t know the severity of the injury until well after Thursday morning’s practice. But the 21-year-old started to feel pain in the afternoon. By nighttime, a scan showed the tear. And on Friday, Ferentz had announced it to the team.

“You feel bad for somebody that puts so much work into it,” teammate and starting defensive end Anthony Nelson said. “He’s one of the leaders of our defense.”

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The Iowa Hawkeyes held their spring practice as Valley Stadium in West Des Moines on Friday night. Brian Powers/The Register

Nelson is confident that Snyder will continue to be a leader; the built-like-a-rock 6-foot-1, 214-pounder walked onto the Valley Stadium field Friday with a slight limp. Surgery awaits, then a challenging road back — ACL recoveries are usually a minimum of six months.

“We can’t count on (him returning next season),” Ferentz said. “But if it happens, that’s a bonus.”

So, on to what this means for the 2017 Hawkeyes.

Snyder was easily Iowa’s best returning safety. He led the 2016 Hawkeyes in forced fumbles (three), tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) and fumble recoveries (two) and was third in tackles (85).

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Check out the quarterbacks during the Iowa Hawkeyes spring football practice at Valley Stadium in Des Moines.

What’s most impressive is that he clearly got better as the season went on. His arrow was pointing up.

When I talked to him a few weeks ago, he was excited to put his improved body of work into action.

“Just continuing to improve in all facets of the game, learning the defense,” he said then. “Just trying to make more plays, being around the ball. The biggest thing we talk about is being around the ball instead of waiting for things to happen.”

That’s going to be a challenge for whoever his successor is.

Friday night, the replacements were junior walk-on Jake Gervase and true sophomore Amani Hooker. Both saw primarily special-teams action a year ago.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has plenty of time to figure it out, but he’s spoken highly of the 6-foot, 210-pound Hooker’s talent.

Sophomore Michael Ojemudia, who is battling for one of the open starting cornerback jobs, said this of Hooker: “He can play some ball. Good instincts, a good tackler, good ball skills. … For a young dude, he knows the defense pretty well.”

Iowa also has a bevy of freshman defensive backs arriving in June. Some have safety size, including Dijmon Colbert (6-1, 215) of Shawnee Mission, Kan.

And I’ll just drop this name here and let it marinate: Geno Stone (6-0, 195) is a hard-hitting safety from New Castle, Pa. You might remember another “Hit Man” from western Pennsylvania who played safety for the Hawkeyes as a true freshman: Bob Sanders.

“We’ve got six DBs coming in. It wasn’t necessarily for that reason,” Ferentz said. “It’s like a lot of positions; we’ll get through spring ball, then when the guys get here in June, we’ll make those evaluations in August.”

That’ll sort itself out. But probably the most important safety for Iowa's 2017 success is Miles Taylor.

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The senior will be a third-year starter at strong safety, but he had his struggles a year ago, especially in pass coverage. Taylor got completely turned around Friday night trying to defend a pass route by Nick Easley in 1-on-1 drills. He needs to take a big jump as a senior.

Miscommunication or poor play on the back end of a defense leads to big plays.

Losing your top safety, especially an emerging leader, is a big deal. But at least there’s time to find a solution.

Iowa’s Sept. 2 season opener against Wyoming is still nearly five months away.

And you can bet, Snyder isn't completely going away.

“Losing him kind of sucks,” Nelson said. “At the same time, he’s a leader. He’s going to step up. He’ll be around. He’ll be talking to guys. He’ll be an impact on the team, even if he’s not on the field.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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