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Iowa safety Amani Hooker is trying to teach lessons to a pair of young cornerbacks. Hear what the junior is telling them: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Sophomore cornerback Matt Hankins is back in the “good graces” of the Iowa football coaching staff, and that may be the best news for a secondary that has been contending with senior quarterbacks for three weeks.

Two weeks ago, it was Penn State’s Trace McSorley running for a 51-yard touchdown on a bad knee in a 30-24 Hawkeye road loss.

Last Saturday, Purdue’s David Blough found plenty of matchups to his liking, to the tune of four passing touchdowns in a 38-36, last-second Iowa setback.

This week, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson heads into Kinnick Stadium for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff (Fox). He leads a Wildcats team that is first in the Big Ten West with a 5-1 record (5-4 overall) and he already has the school’s all-time mark for passing touchdowns with 55.

Hankins hasn’t started since Iowa’s Week 4 loss to Wisconsin. There were wrist and hamstring injuries, then a one-game suspension imposed by coach Kirk Ferentz after Hankins was cited by police for a loud party at his house.

Junior Michael Ojemudia lost his starting job at cornerback at the same time as Hankins. He also had a hamstring injury. He has returned to play in nickel packages.

Those developments left true freshmen Julius Brents and Riley Moss to learn about life as a Big Ten cornerback against teams eager to provide lessons. Brents was in single coverage on Blough’s first touchdown Saturday. Moss gave up the other three, only to be replaced by Ojemudia.

Hankins entered the season as Iowa’s steadiest option at the position, and Ferentz said Tuesday he expects him to play Saturday. Ferentz said it hadn’t yet been determined who will start, but it seems likely that if Hankins gets that call, it will be at the expense of Moss.

“Don’t let one mistake carry over to several other mistakes,” Iowa safety Amani Hooker said when asked what the biggest lesson from the Purdue loss was for the secondary. “If you mess up, move on. We’ll look at it the next day.”

Hooker was obviously talking about the rookie cornerbacks with that remark. He said Brents and Moss have an abundance of natural athletic ability. He’s been impressing on them how much studying film matters.

“Last week wasn’t their best week, but a lot of guys didn’t have a good game. I know they’re going to come out this week firing,” Hooker said.

Ferentz pointed out that even senior cornerbacks have much to learn about a position that often comes down to highly visible man-to-man battles. Iowa entered the season with little starting experience at cornerback after Josh Jackson went to the NFL and Manny Rugamba decided to transfer.

“You're still out there learning every play if you're doing it right,” Ferentz said.

He said Hankins was finally fully healthy last week, and that he has been practicing well this week.

There’s no question Iowa (6-3, 3-3) could use Hankins against Thorson, a dual-threat quarterback who also has 24 rushing touchdowns in his career. He will be making his 49th consecutive start and is a big reason why the Wildcats have won their last nine games against Big Ten West opponents (and have beaten Iowa in back-to-back seasons).

“They have an identity. They work hard. They play hard. They’re tough,” Hooker said of the Northwestern offense. “They’re not going to let you push them around. Sometimes, teams can’t match that.”

This year’s Northwestern team is relying on the pass more than ever, though, after top tailback Jeremy Larkin had to cut his career short because of health concerns. The Wildcats average 265 yards passing per game, nearly 75 percent of their total offense.

The numbers aren’t gaudy, but Ferentz is most impressed by the wins. Northwestern won road games at Purdue and Michigan State and also dropped Wisconsin at home. Two of its losses were to Michigan and Notre Dame, two teams vying to reach the College Football Playoff.

“These guys are gritty, they're tough, and they play good football,” Ferentz said. “They find a way to win when it's important.”

That’s something Iowa has failed to do in losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue. Thorson is no mystery to the Hawkeye defense. But they’ll need all hands on deck, including Hankins', to stop him.

“Up front, we want to make (Thorson) uncomfortable. We want to make him get out of rhythm,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said.

“That’s what makes any good quarterback. No matter what’s happening — (if) they get a different look — they remain poised and they go through their progressions, what they need to do. And he’s done that for years.”

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