Iowa football will likely lose three seniors in the secondary. But the future is bright.
Iowa's football team will play for a chance at history in Saturday's Citrus Bowl against Kentucky. The No. 16 Hawkeyes have already reached a significant milestone: 10 wins for the 10th time in school history.
But an 11th win would place them in a tier that only three other teams have reached in school history.
Every team with that level of success has a quality (or qualities) that's led them there. This year's team has done it on the defensive end by creating turnovers that oftentimes change the course of games. And that effort's been led by their secondary.
"Obviously, winning 10 games here, it has to do with a lot of the leadership in the back end," said Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, considered a whiz as a defensive backs coach. "Understanding what we have to do, and I think they have done a great job with that."
Iowa's defensive backs entered the season with 68 combined starts, making them the most veteran unit on the team. It's a group led by three seniors — cornerbacks Riley Moss and Matt Hankins and safety Jack Koerner, who made up 59 of the 68 starts. Together, they've been the backbone of Parker's secondary in recent years and Saturday's Citrus Bowl matchup against No. 20 Kentucky will likely be the last time they put on a Hawkeye uniform together.
Hankins will not play due to an injury that's sidelined him for several weeks but Koerner and Moss will start. All three are expected to pursue their NFL dreams next year.
"It's just been awesome," Koerner said. "Matt and I came on campus the same day back in 2017. We have been literally seeing our relationship grow over the years, not just on the field but off the field as well, and obviously tuhe same with Riley as well. Pretty much the whole room, I feel like the past two or three years the room has really came together and a lot of camaraderie in there. It's a brotherhood in there."
Outside of wins and losses, 2021 was a historic season for takeaways. The defense hauled in a school record 24 interceptions with Hankins, Koerner and Moss combining for nine of them. After their 23-20 victory over Penn State in early October, Hankins revealed the group's now famous nickname:
"The 'doughboyz,'" Hankins said after the game. "We have to get to the money. The ball is the money."
Their on-field contributions are obvious.
Hankins and Moss frequently take away opponents' two two receiving threats. Their interceptions have set the offense up for easy scores and in a few instances have added points themselves: Moss had two pick-6s in their opening game win against Indiana. Koerner serves as the quarterback of the unit, delivering calls throughout the game to keep players aligned. He's also one of the surest tacklers on the team. His 61 solo tackles are the most of any Hawkeye safety in the last 20 years.
"The last probably well-knit, connected group of guys in the back, one was 2015," Parker said. "I think it was very unique to go into a room and talk to guys and watch the film and have good conversations about the game of football. I think this group here that I'm coaching here the last two or three years are very experienced guys, and I think it has a lot of resemblance to the same team of 2015, which was a pretty remarkable year for us."
But their example goes beyond the plays they make. According to junior safety Kaevon Merriweather, how they carry themselves day-to-day is what's helped the younger defensive backs find success.
"If you could see how Matt is in practice, he's always working," Merriweather said. "He's a four-year starter, there's not much he could get better at but every play, every rep, every session he's trying to get better and perfect his craft. He's taught me so much about how I can improve my own game and what I can do better. With Jack and Riley, it's their competitiveness and that drives us all to want to get better each and every day."
The senior trio is expected to move on but Merriweather expects the secondary's high level of play to continue. A look at the future of the defensive backs supports that claim.
Hankins and Moss' injuries this year opened the door for sophomore Jermari Harris and junior Terry Roberts to gain valuable starting experience at cornerback. Both will return next year as reliable options. Then there's true freshman Cooper DeJean, who's steadily crept up the depth chart and will serve as the No. 2 cornerback behind Harris in the Citrus Bowl. He'll surely be in the mix at either cornerback or safety next season.
Merriweather will return as a starting safety and should junior Dane Belton (the leading interception getter with five) return as well, will create a formidable duo in the back end. Behind them are Quinn Schulte, who started in place of Koerner during the Illinois game and Sebastian Castro who is one of the top special teams contributors on the team.
The Hawkeyes also reeled in a large, talented 2022 defensive back recruiting class: five-star Xavier Nwankpa and three-stars Koen Entringer, TJ Hall and Olando Trader.
It's not the end of the "doughboyz" nickname either; Merriweather said that the name will carry over into next year and years after. But before that, there's one more game left to play with this group and they're hoping to end their run on a high note.
"It's definitely going to be exciting," Merriweather said. "Just going out there and competing with who we started with even before we started calling ourselves 'doughboyz.' Getting calls from Jack, talking to Riley and Dane and with Matt on the sidelines for the last time is definitely going to be surreal and we're going to live in the moment."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.