Leistikow's final thoughts: At least Geno Stone is healthy in Hawkeyes' depleted secondary

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — One of 18th-ranked Iowa’s deepest position groups has become precariously thin entering Saturday’s football showdown at Iowa State.

The state of the 2-0 Hawkeyes’ secondary can be best summed up by this statement:

At least Geno Stone is available.

Regarding defensive-back injuries, that was about the only definitively positive vibe coming from Kirk Ferentz’s weekly press conference Tuesday at the Hansen Football Performance Center.

Stone, the Hawkeyes’ junior strong safety, is “ready to roll,” Ferentz says, after leaving Saturday’s 30-0 win against Rutgers with an injury.

Beyond that?

Kirk Ferentz addresses the media ahead of his 30th Cy-Hawk game. He coached in nine as a Hawkeye assistant (1981 to 1989); Saturday will mark his 21st as a head coach.

First-team free safety Kaevon Merriweather: Out with a foot injury that cropped up Friday. Walk-on Jack Koerner will get a second straight start.

Cornerbacks Julius Brents (knee) and Riley Moss (leg) aren’t ready to return. And now the status of Matt Hankins is cloudy, as Ferentz was noncommittal about the first-team cornerback's availability. Hankins, a 12-game starter and arguably Iowa’s top cover corner, left the Rutgers game with an undisclosed injury and did not return.

“We’ve got a couple guys that are hurt right now, like every week,” Ferentz said after asked about Hankins’ status. “We’ll just ride it out and see where it goes.”

If Hankins can’t go, that’d mean three of Iowa’s top four returning corners from 2018 are out; Stone is the only scholarship safety in Iowa’s two-deep. Ferentz even indicated there have been defensive-back injuries outside the two-deep that haven’t been publicized.

A few silver linings: Ferentz thought Koerner played well against Rutgers; and Iowa gets the first of two off weeks after the Iowa State game (3 p.m., FS1). The Hawkeyes won’t be back in action until Sept. 28 against Middle Tennessee State.

“This week’s about getting to the finish line,” Ferentz said, “and then we’ll reassess everything next week.”

Maybe Hankins will be fine. If not, redshirt freshmen D.J. Johnson and Terry Roberts would be next in line to play; both saw fourth-quarter action against Rutgers. 

"Our biggest concern," Ferentz said, "is taking many more hits back there."

There's no reason for Ferentz to tip his hand on players whose status is iffy. Until there’s a mandatory injury report in college football, there will be mid-week gray areas surrounding a player’s Saturday status.

On the plus side: Iowa’s offensive line is getting healthier.

Cole Banwart, the listed No. 1 right guard to start the season, is practicing and will be available Saturday. However, he might not start.

Iowa has liked what walk-on Kyler Schott has done as a right-guard replacement. Banwart has not played this season with a lower-leg injury after starting seven games as a sophomore.

“He’ll be in the rotation at some point,” Ferentz said. “I’m not sure what that’ll be yet. But he’s ready to go.”

With left tackle Alaric Jackson continuing to progress from the sprained knee he suffered in the season opener against Miami (Ohio), the Hawkeyes — knock on wood — have a chance to be full strength up front after the off week.

Two years later, Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette still remembers when THE play call came into the huddle.

Then a spindly freshman wide receiver playing his second college game, Smith-Marsette said he didn't feel any jitters when his number was called in overtime at Jack Trice Stadium.

“The only thing I was thinking was, 'I’ve got a chance to win the game. We leave after this,'" Smith-Marsette said Tuesday.

With the Hawkeyes trailing 41-38 in overtime, they had a second-and-goal at the Iowa State 5. Smith-Marsette, who had celebrated his 18th birthday 11 days earlier, was the lone receiver on the field. He came in motion left, then sprinted right when the ball was snapped.

A few seconds later, he made history.

“I don’t think I could forget it,” said Smith-Marsette, now a 20-year-old junior with 12 more pounds of muscle than he had in 2017. “Motion in. (The cornerback) gave me the leverage I wanted. I just beat him outside. Nate (Stanley) put a great ball on me. I just sealed the deal by catching it and falling into the end zone.”

Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6) catches a pass in the end zone during the overtime of the Cy-Hawk football game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Ames. The catch won the game for the Hawkeyes 44-41.

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The reception gave Iowa a 44-41 win, and Smith-Marsette was an instant Cy-Hawk hero. He navigated through inconsistency as a freshman and sophomore but has been Stanley's most popular target this season to date (eight catches, 148 yards, three touchdowns). He might be the best big-play threat on either team Saturday in Ames.

Stanley realizes that Iowa State has by far the best defense he’s faced all season.

But the third-year starter said he isn’t expecting a lot of blitzes from a fundamentally sound front seven. His biggest job as the quarterback is to understand the Cyclones’ coverages and rely on his right arm from there. Ferentz called this one of the most "unique" preparations he can remember in the past decade.

“What we’ve studied and seen so far,” Stanley said, “(is) they do a lot of things in the back end to try to confuse people.”

Nico Ragaini remains Iowa’s No. 1 punt-return man following a shaky game against Rutgers.

Ragaini, like the rest of the special-teams-loving football world, did tip his cap to Rutgers' Adam Korsak, who on Tuesday was named the Ray Guy Award national punter of the week for his sensational performance against the Hawkeyes. Ragaini had a hard time fielding some of Korsak’s angled, rolling kicks, and that shortcoming cost Iowa dozens of yards of field position. He also fair caught one punt at his own 5 and lost five yards after catching another punt at the 8.

A learning experience, the redshirt freshman said. He knows the mistakes didn't matter much against Rutgers, but every yard will be precious at Jack Trice Stadium.

Iowa is a slight favorite. 

“I could’ve gotten a better jump on the ball, seeing where he’s running, better communication,” Ragaini said. “It was my second game last week, so I’m not putting too much hardship on myself. Just trying to learn from the experience and get better as the year goes on.”

The case usually reserved for the Cy-Hawk Trophy was noticeably empty Tuesday.

Even though the Hawkeyes have won the past four meetings against Iowa State, the trophy was already packed away — symbolic of Iowa’s approach to this matchup.

“Nobody owns it this week,” Ferentz said. “We've had it, but it's a jump ball right now. That's how it should be, and that's how it is every time you line up for one of those.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.