IOWA CITY, Ia. — Jake Gervase’s first thought when starting safety Brandon Snyder, the guy above him on the depth chart, tore his ACL in early April: "It sucks."
His second thought: "Next-man-in mentality. Nothing’s guaranteed."
In this case, Gervase, a walk-on who’d only played on special teams last year, was the next man in. He’s practiced with the first-team defense since Snyder went down, and he took full advantage of his first game as the No. 1 safety Friday night in Iowa’s spring game. He snared three interceptions, including a roughly 60-yard pick-six.
"It looked like he had the script," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It looked like he got good jumps on those balls, read them well and made some good plays, certainly. So, if this was hockey, he’d be the No. 1 star of the game, no question about that."
On all three interceptions (twice against Tyler Wiegers, once against Nathan Stanley), the junior jumped routes and caught passes like they were thrown to him. No acrobatics needed. It was an exhibition of stellar timing.
His performance came with perfect timing, too. With spring practice done, players and coaches now get a break before summer workouts begin in June. So, with question marks in his secondary after Snyder's injury, Ferentz will have a long while to think about Gervase’s dominant first game as top safety — albeit in a contest that didn't exactly feature great offense.
"With every phase of the program, you hope guys are improving," Ferentz said, "and (Gervase) got off to a good start this spring. He’s just kind of been on the track that way. He works hard. He studies, and it’s paying off for him."
What kind of impression does Gervase think he left?
"I don’t know," he laughed. "You can ask them. You can ask coach Ferentz and ask (secondary) coach (Phil) Parker. But for me, it doesn’t really change anything. I’m just going to try to keep improving."
The secondary was probably the best position group Friday. Gervase made the highlights, but he wasn't the only reason Wiegers and Stanley combined to unofficially go 17-for-35 for 111 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
"We’ve got room for improvement," Gervase said of the secondary. "We’ve got some young guys without a whole lot of experience playing in Kinnick.
"But I feel pretty solid about us. Coach Parker’s going to make sure we’re prepared, whether it’s for practice or for big games in the Big Ten. So I feel pretty good about it moving forward."
Of all the "young guys," freshman Noah Clayberg impressed the most. A former quarterback standout at Pella, Clayberg grayshirted last year and was slated to be a running back this year.
But Snyder's injury forced Iowa to shuffle its roster a bit, and Clayberg moved to safety last week.
After just one week of practice, Clayberg backed up Gervase and took some of the best angles on his tackles of any defender.
"Noah’s a tough kid," Gervase said. "I think he’s been in the secondary for no more than a week, and he’s already running with the second unit. So all the credit goes to him for being able to know the calls, know the checks, and I think he’ll do all right."
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.