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Leistikow: The impressive rise of Dane Belton, a versatile chess piece in Iowa's defense

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The day was August 10, 2019. The place was Kinnick Stadium for Iowa football’s annual Kids' Day open practice. The moment was freshman Dane Belton showing a lack of hustle.

I don’t remember exactly what Phil Parker shouted, but I remember taking notes 30 rows up in the east stands and easily hearing the longtime Iowa defensive coordinator’s displeasure cut through the loud Kinnick music.

I remember subsequently thinking something like, “Guess we won’t see him on the field anytime soon.”

And we didn’t.

Iowa's Dane Belton, a true sophomore from Tampa, enters the 2020 season with gobs of potential and a key role.

My eyes were on Belton that Saturday, because less than 24 hours earlier, Parker had mentioned the then-true freshman from Tampa, Florida, as an intriguing depth piece at safety.

“He’s a good athlete. He wants to study football,” Parker had said. “… I’m not saying he’s going to be (Amani) Hooker, but he’s capable of playing at that level.”

My mind circles back to those moments when considering how essential Belton is to Iowa's defense today.

Belton, speaking this week in his first media interview as a Hawkeye, remembered those early learning moments from the demanding Parker, who doubles as defensive backs coach.

“Coming from high school … you’ve got to start from the bottom,” Belton said. “But I felt like I kind of knew what I was walking into. And I knew what kind of coach that coach Parker was. And those are kind of things that you just have to build upon … and realize why he's doing that.

“He's not just yelling to yell. … I feel like he’s doing it for a reason, to make you better.”

Belton is a smart 19-year-old. He is a kinesiology major and was academic all-Big Ten Conference as a true freshman. Even though he was relegated to Iowa’s scout team for the first three weeks of last season, Belton knew he needed to show consistent effort and football know-how to impress Parker.

After Iowa’s 3-0 start, there was a bye week. It was then that Belton got a chance to take practice reps as a Hawkeye rather than mimicking an opponent’s looks. And that’s when his Iowa career turned a corner.

“We had some scrimmages against each other in practice,” Belton said. “And that was when I got the opportunity to show that I can play.”

The next week against Middle Tennessee State, he was rewarded with his first 11 collegiate snaps — some of them meaningful in a 48-3 win. After Belton sat out losses to Michigan and Penn State, Parker made a defensive change. He was returning Iowa to a 4-2-5 base defense, an alignment that worked well in 2018. Hooker became Iowa’s first full-timer at the “cash” position: a hybrid outside linebacker (who must hold the edge on running plays) and cornerback (who must defend the pass).

Parker chose Belton, the true freshman, as his new Amani Hooker. Just as he had hinted two months earlier.

“Amani was a great player,” Belton said of the 2018 Big Ten defensive player of the year and current regular with the NFL's Tennessee Titans. “He made great plays at cash. He opened the door to that position.”

Belton was trusted with 55 snaps at cash in a 26-20 win against Purdue, a performance worthy of earning his first start the following week at Northwestern. Iowa delivered a 20-0 shutout, with Belton playing 65 of 68 defensive snaps.

He’s been a regular ever since. He finished his rookie campaign with six tackles in Iowa’s 49-24 rout of high-powered USC in the Holiday Bowl.

And now, Belton’s such an important figure in Iowa’s 2020 defense that Parker wishes he could start him at two spots: cash and strong safety. Belton said he's gotten ample work at both positions in practice.

If Iowa reverts to a 4-3 defense, odds are we'll see Belton and Jack Koerner at safeties. If Iowa’s in a 4-2-5 (as I would expect most weeks), Belton’s probably at the cash and Kaevon Merriweather is the leading contender at strong safety.

Belton has become the Iowa defense’s 6-foot-1, 205-pound chess piece.

Hooker, too, juggled both positions as a Hawkeye junior.

Belton’s doing it as a sophomore with zero spring practice because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yeah, he’s going to make mistakes. And yeah, he can also become a fast fan favorite with his versatile ability and football dedication.

Belton's first assignment of the 2020 season? It’s a doozy: arguably the most dangerous slot receiver in all of college football, Purdue’s Rondale Moore. Even though the Hawkeyes are in "Iowa vs. Iowa" mode in practice, Belton and his defensive-back mates began watching Purdue film two weeks ago (after the revised Big Ten schedules came out).

Belton knows he'll be an important factor in that tone-setting opener Oct. 23 or 24 in West Lafayette, Indiana.

“We have started looking at Purdue,” Belton said. “I mean, you have all this time. Why not, you know?”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.