Iowa football: Hawkeyes' secondary loaded with experience, ready to embrace defensive spotlight
IOWA CITY, Ia. — For its first player media availability in nearly four months, Iowa unsurprisingly put some of its most seasoned pieces behind the mic. The position group best represented was no coincidence.
As the Hawkeyes ready for a long-awaited spring practice they hope is more revealing than usual, there's comfort, at least, in knowing the back end is secured. Iowa's secondary boasts one veteran after another, many of whom arrived on campus with little guaranteed. Winding paths have meshed together nicely in preparing to anchor the Hawkeyes' 2021 defense.
"The competition is great," said starting cornerback Riley Moss, one of four Iowa defensive backs to speak at Tuesday's player availability. "Especially when we go team period and we go against the offense, it gets chippy later in spring ball because you've been around the guys for so much. So it'll definitely breed a lot of growth, which is what we want out of spring ball especially since we didn't have it last year.
"Having that depth and always having people working next to you makes you a better player, especially at your same position as well."
The names aren't new, even if the defensive spotlight is.
Matt Hankins is the most grizzled, having bypassed an uncertain NFL outlook to return for a super senior season. Safety Jack Koerner and Moss have risen from CIML stars with uncertain scholarship situations to reliable weapons, both with multiple years as secondary regulars. Dane Belton boasts a similar pedigree despite being the youngest of the core. Safety Kaevon Merriweather didn't let a 2019 foot injury derail his upward trajectory.
Add in former Northern Iowa standout Xavior Williams — who'll have to claw for action even as a game-ready graduate transfer — and it's easy to see why most secondary responses ooze excitement.
"Most definitely we can be a dominant secondary," Merriweather said. "We have so much experience in the backend. Dane has been starting since his freshman year. Jack is going on his third year of starting. I have experience on the backend. Then you have Matt and Riley, two experienced corners. I think when we're all on the same page and are connected with one another —seeing the same things — that can be a huge boost for our defense."
It's a timely transition of trust given what Iowa must replace. Defensive linemen Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin are now wading in NFL waters after strong abbreviated campaigns. Leading 2020 tackler Nick Niemann is doing the same. The Hawkeyes' linebacker assessment is more about familiar names looking to leap, while up front will require heftier replenishing. But neither position group has the depth or the numbers right now to supersede the secondary.
Hankins owns 28 career starts and is set to become a college football unicorn of sorts, having started at least one game in five different seasons thanks to the NCAA's eligibility relief for 2020. Koerner is next with 19 starts, followed by Moss' 14 and Belton's 12. Merriweather has just six starts but five of them came in 2020. None of these guys left the opening lineup last season in games where Iowa began with five defensive backs.
In countless other situations, Williams' arrival would generate substantial buzz as a crucial addition. Two-time all-conference selections, even from the FCS level, don't occupy the transfer portal very often. But the former Panther and West Burlington Notre Dame product will likely start the 2021 season as a back end insurance piece until further notice.
"I've had the pleasure of getting to know Xavior really well so far," Koerner said. "He's a great football mind and has tons of experience. We couldn't be more excited for him to help our team, wherever he's going to fit in. Whatever vision (defensive coordinator Phil) Parker has for his backend, we're all going to buy into that. We're excited to add even more experience to our already experienced backend."
While Iowa's already sterling reputation for producing defensive backs has soared recently — see Desmond King, Josh Jackson, Amani Hooker, Michael Ojemudia and Geno Stone — the Hawkeyes' secondary prowess doesn't always garner the most attention. Especially for a unit that has the nation's second-most interceptions (64) since 2017, slotted just above powerhouses Alabama (62) and Clemson (59). That stretch included a pick in 12 straight games — the final seven contests of 2019 and the first five of 2020.
"You can fall back and stop doing what you're doing," Hankins said when asked to analyze the impressive interception figures, "or just improve. You can only get better if you do that."
Those tasked with continuing the dominance understand the expectations in play. That's one of the numerous benefits with having an experienced secondary full of respected voices. If Tuesday was any indication, we'll be hearing from them often in the months ahead.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.