Iowa's secondary dominated in 2020. Could it be even better in 2021?
For several years, Iowa's built a reputation on their secondary play.
It was no different in 2020.
The Hawekeyes surrendered only 206 pass yards per game and a 57.8% opponent completion percentage last year, good for third and fourth in the Big Ten respectfully.
Where they really excelled, though, was in the turnover battle.
Since 2017, Iowa has ranked among the nation's best in interceptions with 64. Led by defensive coordinator/secondary coach Phil Parker, the Hawkeyes reeled in 11 picks last season in eight games with two returned for touchdowns. For their efforts, safety Jack Koerner was named to the all-Big Ten second team and Dane Belton, Matt Hankins and Riley Moss were honorable mentions.
Enter 2021: Parker is now a million-dollar assistant and the Hawkeyes are returning all five starters in their secondary. One thing is for certain: Their comfort level with each other is at an all-time high.
"I think we're definitely very comfortable," Belton said. "We've all played together, the starting five. So knowing each other's tendencies and talking before plays because you have that relationship with them, I feel, will definitely help come fall."
Belton plays the all-important "cash" position, the hybrid linebacker-safety role, following in the footsteps of Hawkeye great Amani Hooker. (Belton is listed as a first-team outside linebacker on the post-spring depth chart.) He and the other four secondary members in traditional positions make up one of the most experienced units in the country.
At cornerback, Hankins and Moss have been starters since 2018. Koerner has started since 2019 and Kaevon Merriweather is the newest starter to the group, taking on the strong safety role last season.
The five have a combined 68 starts among them. And behind them, Parker is excited about the secondary's depth and the versatility to line players up in different spots.
"We'll have some guys I think with flexibility of playing different positions," Parker said. "I see a lot of growth with some guys in the backend with (Sebastian Castro), (Jermari Harris) has done a good job and Terry Roberts has really stepped up at corner.
"So the depth is kind of back. I know we have Matt and Riley at corner, but I think it'll be interesting to see how it all pans out. But I think we're in a good spot."
And the Hawkeyes are getting some help from the portal. Cornerback Xavior Williams, a Burlington native, transferred to Iowa from Northern Iowa as a graduate transfer. In three years there, he was a three-year starter and was a first team all-Missouri Valley Conference selection in 2018 and 2019.
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"(Xavior brings) leadership," Moss said. "He's very, very athletic. He broke the vertical (jump) record in his first three weeks being here. He's a great kid. He's one of my best friends and brings a lot to the (defensive backs) room.
"He's a veteran too. Even though he's a transfer he knows how all of it works, how to prepare and watch film. He brings a lot to the table."
With chemistry and experience galore, the Hawkeyes secondary aims to create havoc and turnovers immediately in 2021. But, in addition to turnovers, Iowa's been among the country's best in limiting big plays. By Parker's count, the Hawkeyes surrendered only 1.13 big plays (plays of more than 25 yards) per game last season.
Who, or what, is responsible for these impressive figures?
The players will tell you two factors have created the perfect storm.
"I would say the biggest thing is competition level," Belton said. "In practice we're running 100%, getting that look so come Saturday it's not a foreign thing to see guys running this fast.
"Second is scheme. Coach Parker, (linebackers coach Seth) Wallace all of the coaches spend a lot of hours in the facility developing schemes for specific opponents, so that's a big factor as well."
With the consistency of Parker's scheme and an added element of competition with Williams' arrival, Iowa's secondary projects to take a step forward in 2021.
And that could result in being the nation's best pass defense.
"I definitely believe that (we're one of the best)," Belton said. "Having the history we have and the playing history of the older guys in this group, as far as a group, I feel like we can compete with anybody."
Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org