Walk-on Jack Koerner a 'general' in a pinch, as Iowa's secondary depth continues to thin

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA City, Ia. — Jack Koerner’s gameday plans had significantly changed when his head hit the pillow Friday night at the Iowa team hotel. Another secondary casualty could’ve sent the walk-on spinning as he suddenly readied for his first-career start.

It was a flawless night of sleep.

“I actually woke up this morning and said to my roommate, ‘I think I just got the best sleep I’ve got in a while,’” said Koerner, standing confident after the Hawkeyes’ suffocating 30-0 win over Rutgers.  “Someone might expect me to be up all night worrying, but I trusted what I’ve been through.”

Saturday’s insertion at free safety happened with little warning after Kaevon Merriweather sprained his foot during Friday morning’s practice. But Koerner didn’t blink with the itinerary change. The former Dowling Catholic product delivered a nice starting debut as part of No. 19 Iowa’s relentless defensive effort, which ultimately cracked record-book status.

The Hawkeyes limited Rutgers to only 41 passing yards, the second-lowest total in the Kirk Ferentz era only to the 2010 Orange Bowl against Georgia Tech’s triple option. Koerner finished with two tackles and zero glaring mistakes, further proving his worth in a potentially dicey situation.

“Jack was really a general on the field today,” cornerback Michael Ojemudia said. “With Kaevon going down, kudos to him doing as well as he did today. It might not show on the film, but he was really a general out there.

“The first few drives are when you’ve got to get the butterflies out. So just getting your technique out there right — getting the calls in — that’s basically the transition when you’re not playing a lot to getting your first start.”                   

Iowa defensive back Jack Koerner (28) looks to the sideline during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Emotions can swirl when next-man-in replications come to fruition — but it’s not like Koerner’s name hasn’t circulated previously this year. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker began the chatter on media day, and it continued later in the month when assistant coaches spoke again. Walk-on elevation is nothing new in Iowa’s world. Yet, which ones specifically will emerge is difficult to predict.

By all accounts, Koerner had a solid handle on Saturday’s opportunity.

“I knew everyone would be asking me — ‘Are you nervous? Are you nervous?’ — but we’re just going out there playing football,” Koerner said. “Treated it just like practice. I’m going to see the same stuff. I just trust (safety) Geno (Stone), cornerback Matt (Hankins) and OJ to make sure that they’re helping me out, and they did a great job of that. First drive was a little wily, but I was able to calm it down.”

It helped that Rutgers mustered little resistance. The Scarlet Knights’ potent air attack from a week ago vanished with the venue change, forcing a quarterback change at halftime.

Southpaw McLane Carter hit more turf than hands. Relief option Artur Sitkowski wasn’t any better. Neither produced a quarterback rating over 4.0.

Stifling explosive plays was as simple as trusting practice concepts and limiting risks. That made for a straightforward gameplan in Koerner’s first extensive action.

“We knew they had some explosive guys on offense who we needed to contain,” Koerner said. “So that was one of our big points all week — control the big plays. We had a direction correlation to that. We practice it every day — keep the ball on your inside shoulder.  As long as the ball’s between the corners and safeties, they can’t break out into a big play. As long as we’re disciplined and know our leverage, it’ll be pretty hard to get big plays.”

Iowa defensive back Jack Koerner (28) tackles Rutgers running back Isaih Pacheco (1) during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Hawkeyes couldn’t afford a Koerner liability given where its secondary depth sits. Merriweather joined backup cornerbacks Riley Moss (leg) and Julius Brents (knee) as early-season health concerns — and Geno Stone gave everyone a scare after crumpling to the turf in the fourth quarter.

Stone talked postgame and appeared to be fine. Merriweather will at least start Cy-Hawk preparation with his status in question. Moss and Brents aren’t returning anytime soon.

Even if it’s back to a relief role next week, Koerner should see his workload amplify with a huge rivalry game on tap.

“He did a nice job last year, but he's really grown,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Did a good job in the spring, but this August we really saw good growth, more confidence. It's tough playing back there. … Being a signal caller is a tough responsibility.”

So is learning of your first start on short notice. Consider Koerner’s initial test passed.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.