Iowa football: High praise for true freshmen Julius Brents, Riley Moss and D.J. Johnson

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

There was a lot of excitement when Iowa signed its football recruiting class of 2018, especially surrounding the Hawkeyes’ haul of talented defensive backs.

That hype seems to be legit. Because several of those guys are panning out quickly — to the point where Hawkeyes defensive coordinator Phil Parker feels comfortable deploying two true freshmen cornerbacks in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. Big Ten Conference game at Minnesota.

With Matt Hankins sidelined in the second half against Wisconsin, Iowa freshman Julius Brents (20) played 32 snaps. He and Riley Moss could be in line for extended playing time Saturday at Minnesota.

With starting cornerback Matt Hankins’ availability still up in the air, Julius Brents (of Indianapolis) or Riley Moss (of Ankeny Centennial) could be in line for their first career college starts against the strength of the Gophers’ offense — wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. At the very least, one or both 18-year-olds could play extensively against Minnesota.

“Both of them give great effort. And they’re both tough,” Parker said during his appearance on this week’s “Hawk Central” radio show, which airs Wednesday nights on KxNO (1460 AM) in Des Moines. “And they start making these plays and you say, ‘That’s decent. That’s really good.’”

That’s high praise from Parker, a tough-to-please Hawkeye assistant who consistently cranks out top-20 national defenses and NFL-ready defensive backs.

Brents’ quick rise is not a surprise. He was Rivals’ highest-rated Hawkeye recruit in the 2018 class. Moss, though, has been a revelation. He was Rivals’ lowest-rated player in the class — which, of course, had Parker chuckling about the importance of recruiting rankings.

Iowa defensive back Riley Moss, center, has one tackle in his freshman season (on special teams). He could be in line for a more extended role Saturday at Minnesota.

Moss has been on Iowa’s special teams all season and played two snaps of nickel coverage in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin, with Hankins sidelined and Brents in a premier corner role.

“Obviously, (Moss) doesn’t know everything we’re doing, but he does compete on the field. And that’s the encouraging thing about it,” Parker said. “He’s got great quickness, he’s got good cover skills and he’s very tough. He’s knowledgeable of the game. He has a natural instinct; the same thing that Julius has … to understand the game of football.”

So what about Hankins’ status?

The sophomore has been Iowa’s best cornerback. Coaches have been cryptic about his status. On Tuesday, Kirk Ferentz said Hankins has been “working through some stuff.” On our show, Parker expressed optimism that Hankins would be available Saturday, even though he hasn't practiced all week.

“He’s played a lot of football here. We’re just making sure he can get to the game,” Parker said. “I think he’ll be ready for it. How much we play him, it all depends how he feels. I think he’s doing fine now.”

Another freshman DB could be playing soon

D.J. Johnson, another highly rated Indianapolis cornerback in that 2018 class, has been opening eyes in practice. Parker said Johnson was slowed by a hamstring injury but is now “back full go. I’m really excited to see where he goes.”

Johnson (6-foot, 170 pounds) could be a prime candidate to take advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, which allows a player to participate in four games without using a year of eligibility.

“(If) you’ve got a chance to get him on the field and he can show you what he can do without losing a year of eligibility," Parker said, "then why wouldn’t you?”

Parker did say highly-rated safety Dallas Craddieth (of St. Louis) would likely redshirt as he works to keep up with the mental side of the game.

How good is this Hawkeyes defense?

Through four games, Iowa ranks third nationally in total yards allowed (260.5 per game) and fifth in scoring defense (13.0 points). If those numbers hold, they would be the best in the Ferentz era. Parker said he likes a few things about this defense, in particular.

One, it’s the deepest group of defensive linemen he’s had in 20 years here. Two, he said the selfless team culture reminds him of his defenses of 2013 and 2015 that experienced success.

“In every defense, (it’s like) a support system. Who’s responsible in stopping the end run? Who’s responsible for the cutback player? Who’s responsible for the pass?” Parker said. “And if everybody’s on the same page and you see consistency of guys knowing what they’re doing, knowing how to line up, and they can leverage the ball … I think these guys are doing a good job in that.”