Iowa's secondary has high expectations in 2022. How will playing time shake out?
When Iowa's football season kicks off next weekend against South Dakota State, several questions will loom.
What changes will Iowa's offense show after months of scrutiny?
Will the kicking be up to par?
Will the offensive line show signs of progress?
Can Iowa get Big Ten-level play from its starting quarterback?
Among questions, one constant remains: Iowa's defense. A Top 15 unit nationally last season, there's reason to believe they can be better in 2022 with a treasure chest of talent returning. But there's one position group on defense that has Kirk Ferentz's attention? The defensive backs.
The group a year ago known affectionately by fans as the "doughboyz" was Iowa's most productive unit last season with a school-record 25 interceptions. And they were also the unit that suffered the most attrition.
"I mean, we got a lot of guys back on defense, but think about our backend," Ferentz said. "We lost Matt Hankins, pretty good player; Dane Belton, pretty good player and then Jack Koerner, a pretty good player. So we lost three really key guys and I know we missed Matt for a while with injury but before we announce ourselves ready to roll on defense, we still got some work to do."
Last season, Iowa had one of the most experienced secondary's in the country with a combined 68 starts among their five starters entering 2021.This year, the number of career starts is cut by more than half with the departures of Belton, Hankins and Koerner.
There's plenty of talent returning highlighted by preseason All-American Riley Moss and starting safety Kaevon Merriweather, but key departures have created competition for playing time. With a nice mix of veterans and young players, even someone as established as Merriweather isn't comfortable in his position.
"We're treating every single day like it's a game day," Merriweather said. "I think that's something that's helped me personally. I'm looking at myself like I'm not a starter; I'm not going to be a starter until the game starts. So I think as a complete (defensive back) room we're just pushing one another to be better."
Every player's goal is to start but as last season indicated, earning a spot on the two-deep is critical. Here's a look at each position in the secondary one week before game day:
There are a lot of possibilities at cornerback
Any conversation about Iowa's secondary, or their defense in general, almost always starts with Moss. He surprised many coming back for a fifth season and appears to be as engaged as ever.
“I don’t know if we have anybody working harder, when I watch the summer program,” Ferentz says. “I don’t know if we have anybody pushing harder. And he’s a wonderful, positive guy. He’ll be playing at a high level this year.”
Moss is a legitimate Jim Thorpe Award (given to the nation's best defensive back) contender and will occupy one side of the field.
Elsewhere, there's a lot of intrigue.
The competition for the other starting position is between junior Jermari Harris and senior Terry Roberts. Both missed spring practice to injury but Roberts has practiced throughout fall camp while Harris remains out. Another potential name is Cooper DeJean. The sophomore spent most of his freshman year at corner and, while he's cross-training at safety and 'cash,' DeJean was the starting cornerback opposite of Roberts at the Kids Day scrimmage in mid-August when Iowa lined up in a 4-3 defense.
Roberts is the most veteran, Harris filled in nicely for Hankins down the stretch of last season and DeJean has a very bright future in Iowa City. The biggest takeaway: Iowa has at least four starting-caliber corners.
Two other names to watch are sophomore Brenden Deasfernandes and true freshman TJ Hall. Deasfernandes has taken one of the biggest leaps in the secondary. He played opposite of Moss on the first team throughout spring practice with Harris and Roberts out and appeared on Iowa's initial fall camp two-deep as Moss' backup. If an injury occurs, his name will be thrown into the mix as a potential replacement.
Quinn Schulte among contenders at safety
Senior Kaevon Merriweather will hold down one of the two positions at safety. Last season, he was a split-time starter with Belton but he's taken on a much larger leadership role this year and Ferentz believes he's primed for a big season.
"He's not only leader of the backend, " Ferentz said. "He's also the leader for our defense and our whole football team."
Opposite of Merriweather, junior Quinn Schulte's held onto the No. 1 free safety position since spring practice. Schulte has game experience, starting for an injured Koerner against Illinois last season. Now, he's taking on full-time starter responsibilities.
"It’s a lot of making decisions in the moment," Schulte said. "Whether it’s off of motion or seeing something before the snap or as the play goes on. A lot of it’s mental, but it’s physical as well.”
Behind Schulte is junior Reggie Bracy. He's another player whose ascended recently, claiming the No. 2 free safety spot entering fall camp after not being listed on the two-deep during spring practice. He played with Iowa's second defense at both safety positions during the Kids Day scrimmage and his development has impressed Ferentz.
"He's got more awareness now and just a better feel for the game," Ferentz said. "There's only one way to do it, you got to practice and workout and he's done a good job of that."
DeJean checked in at safety as Merriweather's listed backup on the initial fall depth chart but don't discount junior Sebastian Castro (more on him in the next section).
True freshman Xavier Nwankpa is also worth keeping an eye on. He's still learning the system but after early enrolling and a strong fall camp, he'll likely rise up the depth chart as the season goes on.
Where does Iowa stand at 'Cash'?
One of the most versatile players on Iowa's team, DeJean entered fall camp as the favorite to take over Iowa's 'cash' — a linebacker/safety hybrid position. He worked there exclusively in the spring and though he's listed at other positions, it appears that's where he'll find a permanent starting role. There could also be a significant role on special teams too.
"It's the best compliment you can give an athlete that plays football is 'he's just a football player,'" special teams coordinator LeVar Woods said. "(Cooper's) not a receiver. He's not a corner. He's not a quarterback. He's a football player. And I think whatever position we put him in I think he'll he can handle. I think that's the greatest mark of an athlete is that he's versatile, and he's willing to do it and he's able to do it."
Similarly, another player who could wear multiple hats in the secondary is Sebastian Castro. He backed up Merriweather last season while playing a major special teams role and entered spring practice as the No. 1 cash. Merriweather's spring injury moved Castro to safety allowing DeJean to fill in at cash.
Castro wasn't listed on the fall two-deep, leaving questions about where he fit in the secondary plans. During Iowa's Kids Day scrimmage, however, Castro saw extensive second team reps at both cash and safety. Ferentz confirmed afterwards that he's very much still in the mix; meaning that if there is an injury at cash, safety or even at corner that would prompt DeJean to move, Castro would be an option.
"He's growing," Ferentz said. "Sebastian is still young player as far as scrimmage plays and this last spring and this camp so far he's climbing the ladder so that's good for us."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.