Jake Gervase says Matt Hankins is ready for his moment Matthew Bain/Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Last Saturday was a bloodbath for Iowa’s corners not named Josh Jackson. Freshman Matt Hankins left that game the least scarred, compared with Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia.
The result of that 24-15 loss to Purdue? Hankins was listed as the No. 1 right corner this week, likely becoming the third true freshman to start for the 2017 Hawkeyes.
Teammates expressed confidence in him during media availability Tuesday.
"He knows the defense really well and what he’s supposed to do," Jackson said. "He can still, obviously, get better; everybody can always get better. But I think, for where he is right now, he’s really advanced."
"Just in his preparation," Iowa’s potential first-round draft pick answered. "The way he comes out and practices. He really comes out and brings it; he's gotten a lot more physical, a lot more aggressive and his footwork has gotten a lot better. So I think he’s just really driven. That’s what’s good about him."
Hankins played most of the second half against Purdue after it badly burned Rugamba and Ojemudia on back-to-back drives to open the third quarter. The freshman allowed a 16-yard touchdown pass, but that was the only significant blip.
A three-star prospect from Texas who turned down a Michigan offer to play for Iowa, Hankins has impressed the elder statesmen of his position with his ability to quickly learn the defense.
"I couldn't imagine," laughed Jake Gervase, who will start again at safety, with Amani Hooker all but ruled out for Friday. "It took me over a year and a half to learn the calls and the coverages and all that stuff. But he picked it up quickly. He’s got a little football savvy, and you’ve seen what he can do on the field."
Hankins enters Friday’s contest with nine tackles.
"He's got a good air about him, I guess, if you would," Kirk Ferentz said. "Not cocky, but he's a confident guy. And he doesn't seem overwhelmed in any regard. So he's been doing well in practice. We hit some bumps on Saturday and just felt like we give him an opportunity to get in there and play."
'Tis the season to debate
The finalists for many of college football’s end-of-year awards were announced Monday. And, at least to folks in Iowa City, there was a glaring omission for the Butkus Award, given to the country’s top linebacker …
The award’s committee selected five finalists: Michigan’s Devin Bush, Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edwards, Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards, Clemson’s Dorian O’Daniel and Georgia’s Roquan Smith.
Josey Jewell responds to Butkus Award snub Matthew Bain/Hawk Central
There were likely many factors that went into the committee’s decision, but it is interesting to note Jewell ranks fourth in the country with 117 total tackles, while none of the five finalists ranks in the top 45. He also leads Power 5 players with 11.7 tackles per game (third in the country).
Jewell, who is a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy (given to the country’s best defender), reacted exactly the way you’d expect to his potential Butkus snub.
"I’ll look at it afterwards maybe more. I haven't tried to focus on it too much," he said.
"It’s been more of, 'How can we win this last game and help the team as much as possible?' And then maybe at the end of the season you can look at awards, whether you think you should have been on them or not, and debate from there."
On the other side of the spectrum, Jackson was named one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the country’s best defensive back.
"It means a lot," he said. "Just to see the hard work that I try to put in throughout the offseason, and this year focusing on becoming a better player and helping my team, it means a lot."
Josh Jackson discusses potential NFL future Matthew Bain/Hawk Central
Jackson leads the country in interceptions (seven) and passes defended (24), and he ranks third in passes broken-up (17) and interception return yards (163). His seven picks are one shy of tying Iowa’s single-season record of eight (Desmond King, 2015; Lou King, 1981; Nike Kinnick, 1939).
At least from the outside looking in, this kind of season certainly wasn’t expected of the junior from Corinth, Texas. But Jackson said his goal was always to win the Jim Thorpe Award.
"Nothing’s impossible," he told reporters. "I feel you’ve got to set high standards to get high goals. I just try to set my goals high and try to attain them."
Why so many sacks?
Iowa’s offense line was smacked around Saturday to the tune of six sacks. It had allowed 16 through the team’s 10 games up to that point.
Nate Stanley took some of the blame after the game, saying he needs to get rid of the ball more quickly.
James Daniels took a different approach on Tuesday.
"I would say all the sacks were bad fundamentals," he said. " … There’s a lot of variables, and if you don't have your fundamentals, there’s no way of stopping them. Doesn't matter if they’re a MAC school, Big Ten school, NFL team — doesn't matter. You can’t block anybody if you have bad fundamentals."
James Daniels addresses Iowa’s sack problem vs. Purdue Matthew Bain/Hawk Central
And fundamentals boil down to focus, Daniels said.
"You might be focused for 60 plays, but if there are 63 plays and you’re not focused for three of those plays, those can be two sacks and a tackle for loss," he said. "Just every snap, everybody on offense and defense, we all have to be focused."
Wait and see with special teams
At this point in the season, there’s really nothing more Iowa can do to address its punting issues. They’ve got who they’ve got in Ryan Gersonde and Colton Rastetter, and they can only hope for the best until issues can be seriously addressed this offseason.
"We haven't had the kind of consistency in that department that you would like to have," Ferentz said. "And we had Ron Coluzzi last year. But I was reminded, watching the Wisconsin game from a year ago, how inconsistent he was in that ballgame. So that's part of the specialist life, unfortunately, and so we're just going to try to work through it.
"But right now neither guy (Gersonde or Rastetter) has taken charge of it. So we're just going to kind of go back and forth here and see what takes place."
Ferentz did, however, say he was open to trying new players as his punt returners.
Matt VandeBerg has been the guy recently, but his muffed punt against Purdue was the latest in a series of miscues for Iowa’s returners this season.
Iowa’s coach says that practices have been good leading up to Friday’s game at Nebraska. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Early signing period, early take
Ferentz also addressed recruiting (!) Tuesday. Specifically, he was asked if he expected his current 2018 verbal pledges to sign with Iowa during December’s early signing period.
"We're optimistic. We're hopeful," he answered. "And the vibe we're getting is that will be what takes place. But you never know. Recruiting, as you well know is very, very unpredictable. And to me it's really the first signing date, at least with the guys we have committed right now — seems like we've all had a really good mutual relationship and we're all on the same page.
"So if they choose not to sign in December, then that just tells us maybe that there's a little pause in their thinking and, in turn, it will cause a pause in our thinking."
According to 247Sports, the Hawkeyes currently have 14 recruits for the Class of 2018. Recruits can choose to sign their National Letter of Intent during the early signing period (Dec. 20-22), or wait until the regular signing period (Feb. 7-April 1).
Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.