Iowa football: Kaevon Merriweather had bumpy debut, but keeps grip on Hawkeye free safety job
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kaevon Merriweather took responsibility for every big gain Iowa’s defense gave up Saturday.
The sophomore making his first career start at free safety made plenty of mistakes in the Hawkeyes’ 38-14 victory over Miami (Ohio).
But he didn’t get benched by defensive coordinator Phil Parker.
And he didn’t get yelled at by senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia.
That’s why Merriweather was able to smile when meeting with reporters Tuesday as No. 19 Iowa (1-0) prepares to open Big Ten Conference play with an 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday against Rutgers (1-0).
Merriweather is still atop the depth chart. And he vowed that fans will see a faster player wearing No. 26 this time around. He is already the biggest member of Iowa's starting secondary, at a stout 6-foot, 210 pounds.
“I was a little jittery out there,” Merriweather acknowledged after making five tackles and breaking up one pass in his starting debut.
“I’m a pretty good tackler. I probably didn’t show that the last game. I’m pretty aggressive on the run and when I do get to the ball, I finish my tackles really well.”
Miami quarterback Brett Gabbert, a freshman also making his first collegiate start, completed four passes of 20 or more yards. After one of those, Ojemudia sprinted over to redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson to chew him out. Johnson was playing the “cash” position at the time. But his snap count soon diminished as Parker used a traditional 4-3 defense for much of the game.
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“We’d seen that in practice. And when you make the same mistake in practice that you do in the game, it’s kind of frustrating,” Ojemudia said of Johnson’s gaffe.
“That is my job. Even when it’s uncomfortable, you’ve got to get on the guys when they’re in the wrong spots.”
Ojemudia had the cleanest game among Iowa’s defensive backs. The effort culminated with him grabbing the team’s first interception of the season.
Ojemudia said when the defensive backs watched game film Sunday, they felt better about their performance.
“It wasn’t as bad as we thought. The freshman quarterback was better than we thought. I think overall, we did our job,” Ojemudia said.
“We had some blown coverages. We definitely have to watch more tape on this team this week.”
Gabbert passed for 102 yards in the first half and just 84 in the second. Merriweather said Miami’s offensive attack wasn’t what the Hawkeyes had prepared for. At halftime, Iowa made some adjustments and soon took control of the game.
“You want to make your opponent work a little bit if you're playing defense,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “And we gave up a couple easy plays that aren't going to be good for us if we keep doing that.”
Junior strong safety Geno Stone said the problems that arose in the secondary were a result of poor communication. It was hard to hear inside sold-out Kinnick Stadium. Merriweather, responsible for making defensive calls, wasn’t always able to get his message to teammates in time. One answer will be to develop hand signals. The other is just to yell louder.
Stone played alongside Jake Gervase in his first two seasons. He messaged his former teammate, now on the Los Angeles Rams’ practice squad, before Saturday’s game.
Gervase replied: “Be the leader out there.”
That includes mentoring Merriweather, who is an eager student.
“I feel like he has a big opportunity to keep growing from here on out, throughout the whole season. He definitely has the potential to be a really good safety here,” Stone said of Merriweather. “I’m just going to stay on him as much as I can and help increase his knowledge of the game and keep pushing him.”
Merriweather won the free safety job over sophomore Jack Koerner. The competition throughout the summer helped immensely, said Merriweather, who admitted his performance waned for a few days in training camp.
“I kind of got a little complacent in myself,” he said.
Ojemudia was pleased with what he saw from Merriweather on Saturday. He made it a point to keep encouraging the newcomer in the secondary.
“His confidence was rising as the game went on,” Ojemudia said of Merriweather.
And that earned him another start.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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