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Iowa's Kaevon Merriweather becomes hard-hitting safety one year after losing job

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

.IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kaevon Merriweather was exceptionally physical on the basketball court, so of course if you throw some shoulder pads on him and let him roam a football field as a safety, you’re going to get some memorable collisions.

Northwestern’s Jesse Brown found that out when he ventured inside Iowa’s 10-yard line in Week 2. Merriweather was there to meet him, the pop of his pads reverberating through a mostly empty Kinnick Stadium as his Hawkeye teammates screamed their appreciation.

“I think bringing that aggressiveness to the football field is something that translates for me,” Merriweather affirmed Tuesday, after piling up 12 tackles in Iowa’s last three games as the team’s strong safety.

“(The hit on Brown) just kind of set in stone that I was able to play at this level.”

It was Merriweather’s first tackle of the season, after he played sparingly in the opener at Purdue. It was certainly his most memorable.

And it showed that Merriweather, as a redshirt sophomore, is fully back in the plans of Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker after a humbling 2019 season.

Last summer, Merriweather, who is still relatively new to football, won the free safety job over Jack Koerner. He had five tackles in a season-opening victory over Miami of Ohio, but also missed some assignments.

EARLIER:Kaevon Merriweather had bumpy debut, but keeps grip on Hawkeye free safety job

“I was a little jittery out there,” Merriweather conceded later. “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.”

Kaevon Merriweather (26) zeroes in on Michigan State's Jordan Simmons during a 35-7 Iowa win on Nov. 7. Merriweather, a redshirt sophomore, is carving out a role as the Hawkeyes' strong safety, and has 12 tackles in the past three games to show for it.

He was set to start again against Rutgers in Week 2, but Merriweather sprained his foot during the walkthrough the day before that game. He missed three more Saturdays and, by the time he was healthy, Koerner had proven himself as a rising star in Iowa’s secondary. Merriweather had no more tackles in 2019 and wrote it off as a redshirt year.

It was a difficult situation, Merriweather said Tuesday, because he was counting on 2019 being his breakout season as he grew into a position he hoped to hold for three more years.

“It was definitely hard seeing someone playing the position that you were personally in,” Merriweather said.

But there were no hard feelings. Merriweather decided to use 2019 as a year of mental growth as a football player. He picked the brains of Koerner and safety Geno Stone, who is now with the Baltimore Ravens. He says now it actually worked out for the best.

MORE:Geno Stone makes his case for more playing time in Iowa secondary

That’s because Merriweather, at a sturdy 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, was set on playing college basketball when he was growing up in Belleville, Michigan. Western Michigan was going to be his destination. He picked up football in his final two seasons of high school, and Parker discovered him late, extending an offer to play in the Big Ten Conference at this new sport.

Merriweather took it. He also took the advice of his football coach at Belleville, Jermain Crowell.

“He told me as soon as I stepped foot in the door, ‘Ask as many questions as you can, and don’t stop,’” Merriweather said.

That’s what he’s still doing. Merriweather has learned to enjoy watching film, something he said the defensive backs do constantly. He looks forward to hearing Parker break down in great detail what opponents will try to do to get an edge on Iowa’s defense, which has produced eight interceptions in a 2-2 start and ranks No. 8 in FBS by allowing just 14.8 points per game.

Merriweather has even figured out Parker’s obsession with the positioning of defensive backs. Parker breaks the field into quadrants with precise instructions for where his players’ feet should be on each play. They are called “landmarks” or “dividers,” or sometimes involve simply using the hash marks to determine the proper alignment for pass coverage.

“Every inch, every centimeter, every step, every yard counts,” Merriweather repeated to reporters, as if reciting a mantra.

This summer, Merriweather said he spent time proving himself to Parker, showing that he was absorbing every bit of knowledge while also becoming a leader alongside Koerner in the back end of the secondary.

“He just wanted to see me hustle to the ball, play a little bit harder, be in the film room, be able to read my keys a little bit better, play a little faster,” Merriweather said of Parker’s instructions.

Merriweather is still looking for his first career interception. Koerner leads the Hawkeyes with three heading into a 2:30 p.m. game Saturday at Penn State (0-4) to be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.

But Merriweather knows his role is more about being a big hitter on defense, coming up strong in run support. If he’s in the right position at all times, Merriweather has faith that interceptions will happen.

That’s what coach Kirk Ferentz believes, too. He said the Hawkeyes don’t engage in any special drills designed to produce interceptions. They rely on the athletes to make plays when the chance arises.

“We do try to coach just good technique and fundamentals. And film study is a big part of it,” Ferentz said. “A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time. And a lot it is being an in-tune football player and then hustling, working hard.”

That’s where Merriweather comes in. When he lost his job, he didn’t sulk. He went to work.

And now he’s got Parker’s trust again, with no plans to relinquish it.

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.