Veteran Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker gets in his players' ears.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The spring-game hero didn’t take the bait.
Based on what Iowa football fans have seen, Jake Gervase was asked in jest, is it reasonable to expect that he’ll average three interceptions per game?
Gervase laughed at that notion, then quickly turned serious.
“No. That’s a tough question to answer. That was the spring game. We came together as a defense. We had a good spring overall. And it was a lot of fun,” Gervase said on Iowa’s media day Aug. 5. “But that’s not playing against Wyoming on Sept. 2 in front of 70,000 people.”
No one’s expecting Gervase to pick off 36 passes this season. Heck, no one was even expecting the Davenport Assumption product to be starting at free safety. But that’s the plan after last year’s starter, Brandon Snyder, went out with a knee injury in the spring.
Suddenly, Gervase, a former walk-on with five career tackles to his name, finds himself atop the Hawkeye depth chart — a spot he seemed to solidify by grabbing three interceptions in Iowa’s spring game. He had 16 in his high school career.
“It doesn’t really change the mindset,” Gervase said of being the presumptive starter heading into his junior season. “It changes the situation, obviously. You lose the guy who started a whole year, who’s got experience, who’s the leader on the back end. I came in trying to take advantage of every opportunity. Every time in the weight room, every time I’m on the field, work as hard as I can. Guys got to step up, whether it’s me or somebody else.”
Wade King has little doubt that Gervase is ready for his chance. King coached Gervase at Assumption, where he excelled at quarterback and safety. When Gervase was preparing to walk on at Iowa, King even made a prediction to his old high school coach, Reese Morgan, a longtime assistant with the Hawkeyes.
“I have no doubt that this kid will find his way onto the field. He’s wired to succeed,” King told Morgan.
Gervase took the No. 30 when he arrived in Iowa City. That’s the number worn by Brett Greenwood, a walk-on from Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf who started for three years at safety for the Hawkeyes. And it’s not a coincidence. King, who coached against Greenwood for years, sees many parallels between the players. He said Morgan has mentioned that to him as well.
“He’s a smart kid. He’s going to dissect things. He’s going to figure things out as the game goes on,” King said of Gervase, who stands 6-foot-1, 210 pounds. “I would guess that there’s very few kids on that team that out-work him. I know that was the case here.”
It’s the mental part of the game where Gervase really shines, King said. His raw athleticism wasn’t enough to get him any major-college scholarship offers.
“He corrected a lot of my mistakes, and I’m always grateful for those kinds of kids that can get us in the right formation,” King said of Gervase’s days as a high school quarterback. “Sometimes we had to tell him, ‘Look, you’ve got teammates you can count on, too.’ Jake liked to take care of a lot of things for himself. He had great confidence in himself, and you never had to wonder if he was going to play hard.”
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker has Gervase listed above sophomore Amani Hooker on the depth chart because of his extra year in the program. That experience has been vital, as has Gervase’s days spent studying alongside Snyder, another former walk-on who earned the free safety job after proving himself on special teams.
The Hawkeyes are preparing for a Sept. 2 season opener against Wyoming.
“He’s starting to get more vocal,” Parker said of Gervase. “You have to be when you’re back there. There’s a lot of noise going on there. There’s a lot of shifting and motion going on with the offense. So we have to practice that stuff. And I think he’s really taken it upon himself to understand the game and anticipate things that he might see. You can’t be the quiet guy now. You have to be able to stand up and make the calls.”
Gervase figures to start alongside senior Miles Taylor, the last line of what should be a strong Hawkeye defense. The duo also forms the biggest question mark. Taylor seemed to lose confidence as last season wore on, missing two games with an injury and recording zero tackles in two others to finish a bumpy junior campaign.
“I think Miles is a great competitor. Sometimes guys try to make too many plays,” Parker said in defense of Taylor. “I have no question about his ability and his desire to be great.”
Taylor, who is backed up by true freshman Geno Stone, will be paired with a third different free safety in his third season as a starter. He can help out Gervase, but only to an extent since he’s positioned closer to the line of scrimmage. Gervase must be able to survey the entire field and call out adjustments to the defensive backfield.
Snyder, the only junior on Iowa’s leadership group, has been helping Gervase get up to speed.
“We watch a lot of film together and we’re always just talking football. Talking about mistakes that I’ve made, things that I’ve seen,” Snyder said of Gervase.
“I think that helps make up for speed. It helps us play faster. He’s just a tough-nosed, hardworking kid who loves the game of football. And that’s what we need in an Iowa safety.”