IOWA CITY, Ia. — Matt Hankins enters his sophomore year as a cornerback on the Iowa football team with the Phil Parker seal of approval.
“I like his positive attitude. He works hard. I don’t have any complaints about anything he’s been doing,” Parker said of Hankins last week.
“He’s got his priorities in the right direction.”
Why is this noteworthy?
The Hawkeyes entered last season intending on starting sophomore Manny Rugamba at cornerback. Rugamba, like Hankins, had shown flashes of promise while starting as a true freshman the previous season.
It didn’t work out for Rugamba, who was suspended for the season opener for a violation of team rules, eventually lost his starting spot to Hankins and has since transferred.
Parker, Iowa’s defensive coordinator, was tempered in his praise for Rugamba last summer, which ended up being a telling sign that all was not right.
Of Hankins, Parker said: “He’s got his priorities in the right direction. You’ve got to keep these guys humble and keep them on the right path. These young kids, everybody can get excited playing early and everybody pats you on the back and you’ve got to understand you’ve got to go back to work. The only thing that matters is the next play.”
Keep that quote in mind as you watch Hankins go to work this fall. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder from Lewisville, Texas, impressed his teammates right away when he arrived a year ago. He’s studious, quiet and confident.
“I feel like he’s a natural at the position. As a young dude, he came in pretty mature and eager to learn the playbook,” said Michael Ojemudia, a junior who is set to start opposite Hankins when the season begins Sept. 1. “He came in locked in and he had a goal in mind to play.”
Hankins played sparingly starting with last season’s opener against Wyoming. The only game he didn’t appear in was a Week 11 loss at Wisconsin.
The next week, Hankins was thrust into the spotlight when first Rugamba, then Ojemudia, were victimized by a Purdue passing attack that was insistent on singling them out.
Hankins came on and put a stop to that. He started the following game at Nebraska, stuffing Cornhuskers running back Mikale Wilbon for no gain on the opening drive, a play that remains his favorite highlight for the season.
Hankins ended the season with seven tackles in the Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College, a sign that he is ready for a much larger role this fall.
Actually, Hankins said he always felt ready, even before that emergency duty against Purdue.
“I was always in the playbook and learning. And on the practice field I was prepared like I was going to play,” Hankins said last week.
“Ever since I was a kid, I just stay focused. I lock on to what I’ve got to do. When I get it done, then I can relax a little bit.”
There’s no relaxing yet for Hankins. At 19 years old, he’s already a leader in Iowa’s secondary. His backups are freshmen. He likes what he’s seeing from them. He knows opponents will assume there will be a steep dropoff after last year’s star cornerback, Josh Jackson, left early for the NFL.
Hankins is too humble to compare himself to Jackson. He aspires to reach that level someday. Maybe soon.
“We’re coming to play. There’s no games when we step on the field,” Hankins said of this year’s crop of cornerbacks. “We’re going to be here and you’re going to know we’re here.”