Leistikow: Necessary search for Hawkeyes' next secondary star

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Some prominent Las Vegas sports books recently unveiled numbers of interest to college football fans: over/under win totals for dozens of FBS teams.

Numbers established by the sharp guys in the desert — they know more than the average college football magazine — provide a credible, baseline expectation for your favorite team.

And they’ve set Iowa’s total for 2017 at … an underwhelming 6.5 wins.

In other words, expectations are that the Hawkeyes will be a 6-6 or 7-5 team.

Manny Rugamba (5) intercepts a fourth-quarter pass in front of Michigan's Jehu Chesson to help swing momentum in Iowa's eventual 14-13 win at Kinnick Stadium in November. Rugamba had two interceptions as a true freshman, the other coming in a 14-7 win at Minnesota.

Frankly, that sounds about right. Iowa is facing its toughest schedule, in my opinion, since 2013. None of the five road games is a gimme, and Penn State and Ohio State are on the home schedule.

And there are obvious, concerning question marks for the Hawkeyes at quarterback and wide receiver.

But I wonder if the 50/50 perception of Iowa going under 6.5 wins — something that’s happened just three times under Kirk Ferentz since 2001 — also could be traced to the less-discussed area of Iowa’s defensive backfield.

At cornerback: Desmond King, the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner, is now a Los Angeles Charger. Greg Mabin? Also gone, with a shot at the NFL. They had a remarkable 86 Division I starts between them. The pool of possible replacements has four.

At safety: The team’s top returner, free safety Brandon Snyder, is out after tearing his ACL in April. Strong safety Miles Taylor is the most experienced player in the secondary, but he was shaky at times last year and lost his starting job to Anthony Gair after an injury.

So at all four starting spots, there are notable unknowns.

For all the attention given to Brian Ferentz shoring up Iowa’s offense in his first year as coordinator, the pressure is just as much on defensive coordinator Phil Parker to assemble a unit that can defend the pass.

Historically, Parker has delivered. But this will also be the first time he’s operated a secondary that didn’t include someone named either Micah Hyde or Desmond King.

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Can Iowa produce a 2017 secondary star to follow?

I think sophomore Manny Rugamba has the best shot. As a true freshman last season, he was fearless in his first career start: against unbeaten, No. 3 Michigan, no less, and under the November lights. Without his fourth-quarter interception of Wilton Speight, Iowa probably doesn’t stun the Wolverines 14-13.

“People say that I had a good game,” Rugamba said. “But there’s also things I did wrong in that game. It was really a learning experience.”

Rugamba (6-foot, 185 pounds) is fully recovered from the separated shoulder he suffered vs. Nebraska. Look for him to lock down Iowa’s No. 1 cornerback role. But to expect the type of lock-down coverage that King provided over the last three seasons (allowing just a 48.1 NFL passer rating on 180 targets against in that span, per Pro Football Focus) is unrealistic.

“He’s got to get stronger and faster,” Parker said recently on our Hawk Central radio show, “and understand the game a little more to be in that category of being a Thorpe winner.”

Some more encouraging news: Parker said redshirt junior Joshua Jackson (6-1, 192), the other listed starting cornerback, “had a great spring. He’s really more focused (and) understands the defense a lot better than he did when he was younger.”

Redshirt sophomore Michael Ojemudia (6-2, 200) is also competing for a No. 1 role. At minimum, he could be a rangy nickel back.

Kirk Ferentz has said he wouldn’t be surprised if a true freshman joined the mix, too. Texas corner Matt Hankins comes in with the most hype.

“It’s three pretty good guys, so it’s good competition between us,” Ojemudia said. “What (Parker) told me is (to) make it hard to choose the starters.”

I feel pretty good about the corners. Linebacker and defensive end will be strengths. But safety will be an ongoing story.

And that includes the recovery of Snyder. When you hear ACL tear in April, the assumption would be that he’s lost for the 2017 season. But his recovery from surgery is going well, and the hard hitter who led Iowa in interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries in 2016 hasn’t had any setbacks.

“I’ve known that kid his whole life; I remember the day he was born,” tight ends coach LeVar Woods, who like Snyder prepped at West Lyon High School, said during last week's Hawk Central radio show. “The thing I know about that kid is that he’s tough as nails. If you tell him 10 (months), it’ll be eight. If you tell him six, it’ll be four. He’ll do whatever he needs to do to make sure that he’s right. He’ll come back healthy, he’ll come back — my prediction — better than ever.”

Whether that’s in time to contribute next season, we’ll see.

But we’ll get a good idea in the Sept. 2 season opener — which, by the way, is 100 days from Thursday — where the safeties are at. Wyoming brings in quarterback Josh Allen, who some say could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

That kind of test will be like getting a midterm exam on the first day of school.

For now, some combination of Taylor, Jake Gervase, Amani Hooker and maybe Noah Clayberg will have to suffice at safety.

Six wins or less? Seven or more?

The Hawkeyes must score points, for sure. But they first have to prevent them.

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.