'More to come' for Iowa football's Kaevon Merriweather, Terry Roberts after first career interceptions

Firsts are always memorable in the football world. 

For head coaches it's their first win. For a quarterback it's his first touchdown pass. A defensive lineman? That first sack.

And for defensive backs, it's their first interception. 

Iowa defenders Kaevon Merriweather and Terry Roberts are veterans but hadn't intercepted a pass at the collegiate level. Last Friday in a 51-14 win over Maryland, both secured their first as Hawkeyes.

Roberts' interception came first, just before halftime on a Hail Mary attempt, but Merriweather noted that it just as easily could've been his.

"I was actually going to steal it from him," Merriweather, a junior, said while letting out a laugh. "I saw (the pass) was kind of short, I was going to jump up for it but I thought 'Eh, Terry's right there, I'll let him have it.' I was happy for Terry to get his first pick. 

"Once he got it, I said I have to get me one. No way Terry's getting one and I'm not getting one today." 

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Merriweather's patience was rewarded early in the fourth quarter when he snuffed out a post route from a Maryland receiver and intercepted Taulia Tagovailoa's pass — Iowa's fifth pick of the game. There was a lot to celebrate during the defense's six-interception performance.

"It felt great," said Roberts, also a junior. "Everyone's always happy for everyone's success, especially after the first career pick. I'm just really thankful for my guys. There's many more to come obviously, just continue to work and be prepared." 

Work and preparation are program staples at Iowa, and Merriweather and Roberts have embodied those two pillars during their careers. They're impact players but are underrated in recognition compared to other teammates on defense. 

But their importance isn't underappreciated within Iowa's football facility. Their paths to becoming important cogs in the Iowa machine that's 5-0 and No. 3 in the country draws praise from their coaches and teammates. And that work is beginning to come to fruition. 

"Both guys are great guys," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They work hard. Just really, really high-energy guys. That helps our football team. Good for them. That's something obviously every DB wants to do, get a pick or two. Good for them to have success in game action."

Merriweather, Roberts had to overcome early obstacles

Merriweather and Roberts were members of Iowa's 2018 recruiting class. Both had early obstacles to overcome: Roberts was a skinny cornerback who needed to put on college-level weight. Merriweather's challenge was more unique. He was primarily a basketball player in high school and had only played football for a few years, but Ferentz and defensive coordinator Phil Parker saw his potential on the field.

"I knew he was a raw athlete that had ability," Parker said. "The thing was, I knew he was a good kid, he'd give good effort and wanted to be good. I watched him play basketball and thought he had the ability to do it and he had the ability to lead." 

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Merriweather was one of 12 freshmen to appear in game action in 2018, mainly on special teams. Roberts redshirted but was recognized for his practice play by being awarded with Team Leader Award, special teams. 

In 2019 Roberts was caught in a logjam at corner. Fellow Class of 2018 signee Riley Moss emerged as a starter with Matt Hankins and now Denver Bronco Michael Ojemudia entrenched as well. Merriweather was in line for a starting safety position but broke his foot just two games into the season. He took a redshirt and his vacant spot allowed for the emergence of now-starting safety Jack Koerner.

"You're looking at it like 'Man, this is going to be my breakout season,'" Merriweather said. "That to sitting the rest of the season was very difficult. Mentally it was tough to see someone else playing in the position that you thought you'd be playing in." 

Merriweather's time off allowed him to progress mentally. A raw athlete and known hard hitter, he worked tirelessly with Parker to develop into a more well-rounded safety for when his next opportunity presented itself. 

"He just pushed me," Merriweather said. "That next spring he pushed me to do everything right and make sure I was locked in on every play. I don't think I'd be where I am mentally, seeing the game now versus if I didn't have that injury." 

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There's no further proof of Merriweather's understanding of the game than when he was asked to break down what he saw on his interception. 

"It's cover 3 and I get out of my backpedal early," Merriweather said. "I'm reading the quarterback and see one post (route) come across my face and I see him look it off. They ran a play like that before so I'm thinking there has to be another post coming. I just broke on it, saw him throw the ball and said 'Oh, that's mine.'" 

Iowa defensive back Kaevon Merriweather (26) recorded his first career interception last Friday at Maryland. He's been a regular starter at strong safety over the last two seasons.

Roberts, Merriweather take two different paths to earn playing time

Roberts' path to playing time wasn't immediately available at his position so he turned to another avenue: special teams. He understood the strong special teams culture at Iowa — playing in that capacity is a badge of honor in the program. 

"I take pride in everything I do, whether that's sports, school or life," Roberts said. "It starts with special teams, you're not always going to get your first shot on offense or defense. No matter where, if a coach puts you on the field, just go 110%." 

Roberts has had defining special teams moments before, like forcing Iowa State teammates to collide in 2019, preserving a 18-17 Cy-Hawk win. But this year his play as turned him into a special teams sensation. When he's not delivering explosive hits, he's usually on the other end of a Tory Taylor punt, pinning opponents deep in their own territory. 

Even now, he's considered a starting-level corner by Ferentz and Parker but at the moment, two seniors and multi-year starters are occupying the position. Still, his attitude remains strong and that in itself has established him as a leader. 

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"The thing I see most out of him is he's full-go," Parker said. "He has this energy that kind of delivers to our players and it's exciting. It ignites everyone else, I really enjoy coaching him and he's going to have a good future." 

Iowa defensive back Terry Roberts (22) has made downing punts at the 1-yard line a regular thing in 2021. He's emerged as a special teams star for the Hawkeye team.

2021 marks year two for Merriweather as a starter in Iowa's secondary but he shares the position. He starts at strong safety in their base 4-2-5 with junior Dane Belton at the 'cash' position. When the Hawkeyes go 4-3 and add linebacker Jestin Jacobs, Belton slides to strong safety and takes Merriweather off the field. 

Merriweather has no problem sharing the snaps. In fact, he welcomes it. Just another example of his unselfishness as a teammate.

"I understand what my job is," Merriweather said. "We all have a role to play. I understand my role, Jestin understands his role, everyone understands his role. I think what's bringing the defense together is everyone understands their role and does their part for the defense." 

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And within your role, it's important to take advantage of every opportunity. That's what Roberts did on the final play before halftime in Iowa's "victory formation" package for end-of-half and end-of-game situations, one of the few packages he's a part of at his position and what Merriweather did on his opportunity to secure a pick. 

The praise on Iowa's defense will likely continue to fall on established stars like Hankins, Moss and linebacker Jack Campbell. But the underrated Merriweather and Roberts will continue to impact the game in their own way. As Roberts says, all it takes is one opportunity. 

"When you're out there, no matter what, just take advantage of it," Roberts said. "Giving 110% no matter what because even if you're out there for one play, that play might change the game." 

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 ksmith@gannett.com