Several Iowa football backups are getting unexpected starter reps this spring. Who's standing out?
IOWA CITY — Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker frequently preaches to his defensive backs the importance of preparing like a starter when in a backup role. Injuries can happen at any time and the next man has to step in and produce when called upon.
This spring practice, that message has stretched across the entire Hawkeyes defense.
At the midway point in spring, several Iowa football defensive starters have missed some or all of practice time nursing a series of injuries, including all three starting linebackers in Seth Benson, Jack Campbell and Jestin Jacobs, defensive backs Jermari Harris, Kaevon Merriweather and Terry Roberts, and defensive end Joe Evans.
These injuries aren't serious, per Iowa's defensive assistants. Most are being held out as a precaution to be fully healthy going into the summer period, and because their extensive playing experience makes it so missing some of spring isn't too detrimental.
On the field, however, their absence has created an unexpected opportunity for several players behind them on the depth chart.
Iowa knows what it has in the proven commodities listed above. This spring has given coaches a chance to see what other players can with the starting unit.
"As we see it defensively, we're looking at the future," linebackers coach Seth Wallace said. "We're looking at what depth we have behind the guys that have been out there and done this work, at least as it relates to last season. Everybody's still here. Everybody's still on the roster. Not everyone's on the field. From a coaching standpoint, it's a welcomed opportunity to see what exists right behind that front door."
Wallace expanded on his point with a baseball analogy. It's important for backups to see different "pitches" or offensive sets to expand their comfort level on defense. In doing so, they progress from someone who can fill in for a few plays, to a full-time starter if needed.
"They need to see the fastball, curveball, the change-up," Wallace said. "There's a lot of different variables that your young guys, your backups need to see and if they can see it in the spring then it isn't new and it isn't catchup in the fall. And that's what you're trying to do right now — not so much the bottom of your depth chart, but that midsection, you're trying to move from a middle reliever to a starting role."
From the linebacker group, the one hit hardest by injury, five names are sticking out most: senior Logan Klemp, juniors Kyler Fisher and Jay Higgins, and redshirt freshmen Jaden Harrell and Karson Sharar. Harrell and Sharar weren't on Iowa's initial spring practice depth chart. Harrell is working at middle linebacker only, where Campbell is the starter, and Sharar is working at all three linebacker positions.
Klemp, the No. 2 outside linebacker behind Jestin Jacobs, is getting first-team reps there and also working at weakside linebacker, where Benson starts. Fisher is Benson's listed backup and is also working at outside linebacker and "Cash," Iowa's linebacker/defensive back hybrid position. Higgins has made the biggest impression of all, stepping in for Campbell at middle linebacker, and he's also working outside.
"Higgins has done a really nice job inside," Parker said. "As a Mike (middle) linebacker, I see his growth and the way he carries himself in the building and on the field is pretty good."
On the defensive line, Evans has enjoyed watching the development of Deontae Craig, his direct backup who's gotten his starter reps while Evans is out.
"I think he's been focusing on daily improvement," Evans said. "Being able to watch that is a lot fun. He's working on his first step and I think he's becoming a better player this spring."
In Iowa's secondary, a mix of veterans and young players have made impressions. Junior Sebastian Castro, a standout on special teams last year, is the No. 2 strong safety behind Merriweather and has gotten an extended look there throughout spring. Because Castro is the listed starter at Cash, his reps at safety have given an opportunity to sophomore Cooper DeJean in his place, who is also listed as a No. 2 cornerback.
"(DeJean)'s done a good job," Parker said. "For the last year, he's played outside (cornerback) but he can play inside and the Cash. There's multiple positions that these guys can play."
Harris' and Roberts' injuries at cornerback have given sophomore Brenden Deasfernandes an opportunity at first-team corner opposite Riley Moss. Another name that's garnered praise from coaches and players is early enrollee cornerback TJ Hall.
Merriweather said Hall made an impression on the first day of practice with a play he made in their Cover 3 defense, and on Wednesday Parker said Hall's had "a good couple of practices" but still there are still mistakes made, as he's so new to the system.
From Moss' perspective, this spring has been critical for building chemistry with a lot of players. He said going through good reps and bad reps as a unit is critical at this time of year to determine what works and what doesn't work. And the more reps for backups and young players, the more comfortable they'll feel on the field.
"They're starting to read the field a little bit better," Moss said. "Not just playing and thinking, 'I need to be doing this or this,' but looking at things more conceptually and just playing football and moving around. It's trying to get them to not move like robots and I think they're doing a great job and taking steps forward."
The injured starters are remaining busy. Right now, most of their development as players is coming from film reviews.
"I think that's when it gets detailed the most from a coaching standpoint," Wallace said. "Everything happens so fast during practice that you're trying to make it a coaching point before the ball's being snapped on the next rep, that once you get in (the meeting rooms), if you're trying to do it on a masterful level in coaching or teaching, that's when a lot of that learning and education is being dealt out."
The hope, obviously, is for Iowa to be at full health by the time fall camp starts in August and in early September for the season opener against South Dakota State, but Merriweather knows anything can happen. Injuries to starters are never ideal, but the silver lining is that it's forcing new players to step up and add experience in case their number is called this season.
"We've seen throughout every season on defense, we have one or a couple of guys get hurt," Merriweather said. "When you're able to have younger guys get reps and experience and just build that confidence, it helps deep into the season when you're at game eight, game nine, when you have a junior or senior whose body might be beat up. Knock on wood it doesn't happen, but just in case it does, it helps to get those guys in so we can keep the train moving."
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.