Brian Ferentz on Oliver Martin snap count: 'I'm not going through that this year'

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There is a history of walk-ons earning starting safety jobs at Iowa.

Sean Considine. Brandon Snyder. Jake Gervase. And now Jack Koerner looks like he may have shown enough in two starts to hold off Kaevon Merriweather, even when he returns from his foot injury.

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, speaking to reporters Wednesday during the Hawkeyes’ bye week, indicated it’s going to be difficult for Merriweather to beat out Koerner. Merriweather, a sophomore from Michigan, won the job during training camp and had a couple of shaky moments in a 38-14 season-opening win over Miami (Ohio). He then hurt his foot the day before No. 18 Iowa (3-0) beat Rutgers.

Koerner, a sophomore from West Des Moines Dowling Catholic, has started the past two games and ranks fourth on the team with 12 tackles and tied for first with two pass breakups.

“It's going to be hard and very competitive at that position when Merriweather comes back,” Parker said.

“The great thing about it is the players usually decide. They usually decide who is playing, their preparation and their understanding; how they take command of the back end. … You also need a good free safety to be the commander, too; and whoever can come out there and take that. I'd rather have a guy that knows what's going on and can get in the right places and making sure that we are in the right defenses.”

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.

Help on the way for bruised secondary? Hello, Dane Belton

Parker said Merriweather “has a chance to get back” for Iowa’s Sept. 28 home game vs. Middle Tennessee State. Cornerback Julius Brents, who hasn’t played yet this season while dealing with a knee injury, is also close to returning, Parker said.

That will help a secondary that has been beset with injuries. Cornerbacks Matt Hankins and Riley Moss also are out.

The good news, Parker was quick to point out, is that redshirt freshman safety Dane Belton has been shining in practices again. He also has been used some at the “cash” position.

“Dane Belton is another guy that we thought a lot that he was moving up (during the summer) and he fell back down a little bit and now he's moving back up,” Parker said. “So interesting to see where he is here in the next week and a half.”

D.J. Johnson gets torched, but 'had a great response'

Redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson got his first career start at cornerback in place of Hankins in Saturday’s 18-17 win at Iowa State. Johnson was burned on the Cyclones’ first touchdown, but bounced back with eight tackles and two passes broken up to be named co-freshman of the week in the Big Ten Conference.

Parker said he was happy to see some quick maturation from Johnson.

“Sometimes you can sit there and tell players and make sure you have eye discipline. With that play, obviously he took his eyes in the wrong spot. Young kids do that,” Parker said.

“He had a great response. He goes, ‘Coach, I know, I've got to get better.’ I think there's some plays he made out there. One time on the deep ball in the post, he defended that well. So he grew up. Does he have a lot more to go? Yeah, he has a long ways to go, and he knows that and he worked hard today.”

Epenesa getting plenty of attention, but getting pressure on QB anyway

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa was named a preseason all-American by six publications after leading the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks a year ago.

The junior has only one sack through three games, but has been credited with five quarterback hurries. Parker said opposing teams are paying a lot of attention to Epenesa.

“They know where he's at,” Parker said of Epenesa.

“But I think A.J., he's been putting a lot of pressure on the guys, any ways. … Maybe they don't have the sacks, but they are making the quarterback throw before he wants to throw the ball. And that's kind of a little bit what that (run-pass option) stuff is, protects a lot of those guys to, hey, get rid of the ball fast. It's going to be hard to get pressure.”

Brian Ferentz on Oliver Martin snap count: 'I'm not going through that this year'

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz didn’t want to talk about the low snap count for his No. 5 wide receiver. That has been Oliver Martin, a heralded transfer from Michigan who dominated headlines all summer with his efforts to play immediately for the Hawkeyes. The NCAA and Big Ten Conference ultimately gave Martin the green light and he scored a touchdown in the opening game vs. Miami (Ohio) on his second play as a Hawkeye.

But Martin hasn’t been seen much since, including just two snaps in Saturday’s win over Iowa State. He was not targeted. Ferentz was asked why Martin played so little.

“Have you guys not seen the production out of the other guys?” Ferentz replied.

“I will tell you right now, I'm not going through that this year. This guy plays, that guy doesn't play — if guys are out there producing, that's the way it is.”

That was a reference to questions asked late last season about tight end Noah Fant being relegated to the sideline in key moments of games. Fant was a first-round NFL Draft pick, but so was T.J. Hockenson, who saw the bulk of the time at tight end a year ago.

This season, Ihmir Smith-Marsette leads Iowa with 11 catches. Nico Ragaini and Brandon Smith have nine each and Tyrone Tracy has five. Those four wide receivers have gotten the majority of the snaps the past two games. Martin has four catches for 24 yards.

Tight ends will have to wait their turn for receptions

Ferentz is so pleased with his wide receivers that Hawkeye tight ends Shaun Beyer and Nate Wieting have combined for only five catches. That’s by design, although Ferentz said there could be more opportunities in the passing game for his tight ends going forward.

“We're going to get the ball to the guys that can do something with it. I think right now, our tight ends are maybe growing into a role where they can get some more touches, but the reality is that we have some very capable receivers,” he said.

Wieting still fills a vital role, Ferentz added.

“I don't think you can under value the contribution a guy like Nate Wieting makes to the whole offense and the things that he's out there doing. He plays a multitude of positions for us,” Ferentz said.

“This guy is a good player. Unfortunately for him the balls haven't gone his way right now. I think that's a good problem to have, but it seems like every year no matter what, somebody is not going to get the ball enough, right? I think that's the reality of it. The good news is none of our guys can ask for a trade.”

Four running backs will continue to split time, including a true freshman

The Hawkeyes have used four running backs in their opening games, and that pattern appears likely to continue. Ferentz said he has trust in juniors Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin, as well as true freshman Tyler Goodson, who has shown he’s the fastest of the group.

Sargent is the lead back with 208 yards rushing plus another nine catches out of the backfield. Young has 120 yards and Goodson 105 (along with six receptions). Kelly-Martin saw his most extensive playing time of the season Saturday, in part because Sargent is dealing with a wrist injury and Ferentz wanted to limit his workload. He has 20 yards rushing and 25 receiving.

“We have a very unselfish room right there, and we have four guys that are much more interested in the team winning and the team doing well, than any kind of a personal accomplishment,” Ferentz said.

Sleep-Dalton wants to show he can punt in wintry conditions

It’s not often Iowa can use the weather as a recruiting pitch. But that’s apparently what helped the Hawkeyes land punter Michael Sleep-Dalton, who transferred from Arizona State for his final college season.

Sleep-Dalton, who is from Australia, has been outstanding the past two games. He’s averaging 46.4 yards per punt with three of his boots trapping opponents inside their 20-yard line.

Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods said Sleep-Dalton wanted a chance to show he could handle the elements, which the Big Ten will provide him. That, in turn, might help his chances of landing an NFL spot.

Sleep-Dalton was terrific on a rain-filled Saturday in Ames. But it’s nothing compared to what he’s likely to see in November, when Iowa plays two home games and travels to Wisconsin and Nebraska.

“He's played in rain and he's played in some conditions before but not like he's going to see here in October and November in Iowa,” Woods said.

“I think last week was a good test for him in a game where the conditions, the field, was a little bit muddy and wet. I think it's part of the deal for him in dealing with those elements. Now, as the weather starts to change, wind is going to be a factor, potentially snow, cold. But I think for him, it's getting used to those things and having a plan like we did last week and executing a plan and going out and doing what he does.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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