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Jack Koerner explains why he walked on at Iowa and what he wants to achieve next as a starting free safety. Listen: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Jack Koerner was a starting safety at Iowa high school football power West Des Moines Dowling Catholic, so smart and skilled that he captained the defense on a state championship team.

He didn’t draw a lot of college interest, but South Dakota certainly liked what it saw, becoming one of three FCS schools to offer a scholarship. Koerner was set on becoming a Coyote.

Shortly before National Signing Day in January 2017, he dropped a bombshell on his parents, Gary and Gail. Koerner was thinking about passing up a free education in order to walk on to the Iowa football team.

The Koerners scheduled a family dinner at Firebirds in West Des Moines to talk it over. Seated opposite his son, Gary asked Jack a pointed question.

“Why are we not going to South Dakota? Because we were locked and loaded. We had a whole closet full of South Dakota stuff,” Gary Koerner recalled. “And he said, ‘Mom, Dad, I don’t want to wonder for the rest of my life whether I could have done it with the Hawkeyes.’ And so, ‘Check please,’ basically.

“When your kid says he doesn’t ever want to regret it, that kind of hits you as a parent. So we just want him to be happy. That was a good enough reason for us.”

Two years later, it’s easy to say things have worked out just fine for Jack Koerner and the Hawkeyes. He doesn’t yet have that scholarship he once turned down. But the redshirt sophomore is about to make his fifth start at free safety when No. 18 Iowa (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) hosts No. 9 Penn State (5-0, 2-0) at 6:44 p.m. Saturday in a game nationally televised on ABC.

How did Koerner get here so quickly?

He put his mind to it.

“All through my career, I’ve tried to do things right and just be attentive in the meetings, even when I’m not on the film,” Jack Koerner said this week. “The more you understand the defense, the easier it is (for coaches) to progress you.

“That’s something that should be the biggest strength for any guy. The more you know and the faster you know it, the faster you can play. That makes up for a lot of physical things. Obviously, having the physical ability makes it even better.”

Koerner is 6-foot, 204 pounds. He was fast enough to be a star center fielder on the Dowling baseball team, and he has packed on enough muscle to be a forceful tackler. He has 20 tackles, tied for third on the Hawkeyes. He has broken up three passes, including one heady play in the waning moments of Iowa’s 18-17 win at Iowa State last month.

Tom Wilson coached Koerner at Dowling and was surprised that bigger colleges weren’t after him. Wilson said Koerner was always a serious, cerebral player, and also more athletic than he sometimes got credit for. Koerner played some at wide receiver when the Maroons needed a big play. He also returned kickoffs and punts.

“I think he’s probably a little bit underrated as an athlete. You might have bigger kids. You might have faster kids,” Wilson said. “But he’s always been very explosive. I remember watching him dunk a basketball as a junior. How many kids his size can do that at that age?”

Former Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan was one who took notice. He started visiting Koerner and came away impressed, so much so that he extended a preferred walk-on offer.

Gary and Gail Koerner met while students at Iowa. They used to bring Jack to Kinnick Stadium, where he loved tossing around a football at pregame tailgates.

So the appeal of wearing the black and gold was strong for Koerner. Too strong, as it turned out. South Dakota couldn’t compete with that.

Koerner redshirted as a freshman, then played on special teams last season, recording two tackles.

That was the plan again this season, although Koerner was hopeful he could work his way onto the depth chart. He started to assert himself in spring camp. By the summer, Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker was dropping his name in media interviews.

Back home, Gary Koerner took notice. Jack doesn’t talk much about his football success. His parents had no idea that things were going so well.

“When I heard Phil Parker bring up his name unprompted, I was like, ‘Whoa, something might be happening here,’” Gary Koerner said. “You go there as a walk-on and you’re trying to climb the ladder, right? You’re trying to get invited to camp. And then you’re trying to be able to dress for the game. And you’re trying to get on the travel squad. Then you get on special teams. We always knew he was going in the right direction. But the idea of him starting this year, that was a surprise.”

Koerner entered the season second on the depth chart to sophomore Kaevon Merriweather. But the day before Iowa’s second game, at home against Rutgers, Merriweather hurt his foot. Koerner’s time had arrived.

Not that he was eager to share that news. Gary Koerner said his wife had a 10-minute phone conversation with her son that Friday evening. Just before she hung up, Jack mentioned he might be starting.

And he has been ever since.

Koerner said he doesn’t think that he’s earned the job for good, even though all signs are that he has. Merriweather was healthy for last Saturday’s loss at Michigan, but didn’t play a snap on defense

“We both know that both of us are capable of going out there and doing it. We both trust each other and, in practice, we’re constantly working with each other, helping each other out,” Koerner said of Merriweather. “We know that the competition makes us both better. It can’t hurt having us both play well.”

Koerner said the next step for him isn’t complicated: “Just to keep playing good football and make everyone around me better.”

Wilson has been keeping close watch on his former star player. He sees a different athlete than the one he coached.

“I obviously watch the Hawkeye secondary more now than I ever did and really isolate on Jack,” Wilson said.

“I think he’s playing physical. You can tell that he’s communicating a lot back there. I think he probably seems like he’s a little more vocal than he was for us. He plays like a very confident player right now.”

Gary Koerner is struck by the confidence he sees in his son as well. The lifelong Hawkeye fan can’t believe how this is all unfolding. The days of stocking up on South Dakota gear seem like a lifetime ago.

“I honestly don't know where it is,” Gary Koerner said of the Coyote garb. “I think it’s in the storage area.”

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

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