Iowa football veterans Terry Roberts, Quinn Schulte finally got their chance, and they've seized it
At first, it was hard to tell why Iowa cornerback Terry Roberts was so upset.
An errant pass from Iowa State quarterback Hunter Dekkers came Roberts's way early in the third quarter, he secured the interception but most couldn't tell by his body language shortly after. He picked off the pass but was upset that he couldn't stay on his feet for a potential pick-six.
Many thought he dropped a would-be interception but he didn't. He twisted his body to catch the errant pass, just enough to lose his balance. He was just upset that he didn't return it for a touchdown.
"I was really just trying to make sure I had the ball, but obviously I saw a lot of green grass," Roberts said. "When the ball was in the air, I knew that I would catch it but I was so focused on trying to score, I just couldn't get there. So that's why I was upset."
That snapshot perfectly illustrates the emotion that Roberts plays with. Admittingly, the fifth-year senior is animated during games. But the first two games of this season mean more. He's a full-time starter for the first time in his career, and he's doing so off an injury that's sidelined him since last October. In his first career start against Purdue, Roberts suffered a hyperextended knee and bone bruise that ended his season. That same injury kept him out of spring practice and limited him throughout summer workouts and fall camp.
"That's kind of another reason why I'm playing with a lot of emotion," Roberts said. "It's been so long since I've actually been on the field and this is just a game that I love. So when I'm out there playing it's the time for me to actually just be and have fun out there."
Similar to Roberts, there's another player in the secondary maximizing his chance to start for the first time. That's junior free safety Quinn Schulte, a former high school standout in Iowa. His play through two games might be the biggest surprise on defense, leading the team with four pass deflections and unloading a handful of big hits.
"He's done a great job," senior cornerback Riley Moss said of Schulte. "It started this past winter and into spring bal. He's really taken the game and and the film that he watches and the way that he approaches his preparation for the game is why he's able to play so fast and be so successful."
If Iowa's defense had any questions entering this season, it centered on the secondary that had to replace three multi-year starters to the NFL. Roberts and Schulte are two of the new starters who have contributed to the Hawkeyes ranking 14th in pass defense and sixth in points allowed nationally.
And Roberts' importance to the defense became even bigger after Tuesday's news that junior Jermari Harris will miss the season to injury.
"What he did starting with Game 1, he really made his presence felt, first of all, on special teams," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Which we missed that because he's a very dynamic special teams player, and then on top of it he's really played corner well and played it with some emphasis out there, some enthusiasm."
He's been one of Iowa's special team aces for years, but is showing his ability as a starting cornerback this season. So far he's tied for second on the team with two pass deflections and has one of the team's two interceptions. Nearly a full year (322 days) passed between Roberts' last game against Purdue in 2021 and Iowa's season opener on Sept. 3, and he didn't participate in much on-field activity in between.
But he found a silver lining in the layoff: it allowed him to become even sharper mentally.
"I couldn't make myself a better football player physically other than treatment," Roberts said. "But I was able to take in the mental aspect of the game with Coach Phil Parker and some of the other players, which kind of slowed the game down for me was made allows me to play faster so it's definitely a huge movement from last year."
Schulte's rise was more unexpected but follows a familiar career arc of former walk-ons becoming starting safeties. Most recently, that includes Jake Gervase and Jack Koerner.
"Jack started his walk-on mentality brand (last season)," Schulte said. "I think that applies almost everyone in life. As a walk on, you come in just trying to take every opportunity you get and just kind of try to run with it."
Ferentz noted Schulte's personality differs from his predecessors but each share a distinguishing trait: a keen attention to detail.
Senior linebacker Seth Benson recalled Koerner's interception against Maryland last year as an example. Koerner caught a tipped pass from linebacker Jack Campbell and was in position based off what he'd seen from Maryland in that formation on tape from a game a few years prior. This year, Benson sees that same studious habits from Schulte, noting that he regularly texts him (even when Benson is in class) about concepts and play designs.
That attitude has enabled the former high school quarterback to earn a starting position.
"It's a steadiness in performance," Ferentz said. "A steadiness and a thoroughness in the way he prepares and the way he practices each and every day and then you get into game competition. You try to assess what a guy does, and at least he's really off to a good start for being a two-game starter."
It's still early for Schulte and for Roberts as starters. But the hope is they'll continue to play with more confidence and as a result, keep the secondary among the most consistent groups in the country.
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.