Iowa football's secondary depth is an underrated storyline to watch during spring practice
As Iowa football's spring practice nears its close, a position group of strength is focusing on raising its competition level and depth.
The Hawkeye secondary's been among the nation's best over the last two seasons, and despite losing All-Big Ten performers Riley Moss and Kaevon Merriweather, expectations haven't changed.
"It's really competitive," said redshirt freshman cornerback Deshaun Lee. "When you're watching film, (as a group) you don't want to be the one that's messing up so you're going to work hard when it comes to practice. It's just a standard in the defensive back room, you don't want to be below that, so it pushes you to work harder."
Lee is one of a few players of interest in the defensive back group. He isn't a projected starter, but his development will be crucial to the 2023 season. Last season Iowa's secondary was hit hard by injuries with junior Jermari Harris missing the entire year, senior Terry Roberts missing most of the campaign and junior Cooper DeJean missing the majority of the regular season finale against Nebraska. DeJean's absence was a catalyst for a 24-17 loss that kept Iowa out of the Big Ten title game.
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Lack of depth was a concern throughout last season and was a storyline entering the offseason and spring practice. Iowa has strong front-line starters in DeJean and Harris at cornerback, Sebastion Castro at 'Cash' plus Quinn Schulte and the emerging Xavier Nwankpa at safety. But who is developing behind them to provide much-needed depth? The early candidates are Lee, fellow redshirt freshman safety Koen Entringer and sophomore TJ Hall.
All three, with Nwankpa, were class of 2022 signees that had varying roles last fall. This spring the onus has been on them to progress within Iowa's defense and potentially contribute if called upon.
"(Entringer) did a really nice job (last season), probably would have played some in the (Music City Bowl) then, unfortunately, he got hurt (during bowl practice)," said coach Kirk Ferentz. "That kept him from being on the field, but he has really done a good job.
"(Hall and Lee) are young guys right now. (Spring) is a really valuable time, this will really be helpful for them. If we're going to have a good football team, we need them to take the next step. I think they will. I feel good about the way they work. They're great guys in the program."
Hall and Lee are the listed backup cornerbacks on Iowa's spring practice depth chart. Hall, an early enrollee last spring, received the most on-field experience in 2022 by playing in Iowa's nickel and dime sub-packages in games like Purdue. He also replaced DeJean in the Nebraska game. A season of highs and lows provided valuable lessons.
"The game was a lot quicker than what you think," Hall said. "I learned a lot from (watching film) and talking to the older cornerbacks...one of my goals this spring was to be more patient (in my mechanics) and becoming more vocal."
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Lee and Etringer, who is working with the second unit at both free and strong safety, spent all of last season on Iowa's scout team defense. Their workload with Iowa's base defense was limited but both were standout performers replicating opposing defenses. Then, as a result of bowl game opt-outs and transfer portal entries, both received opportunities to move from the scout team to the second-string defense.
"I think it was just more reps and opportunities to get (on the field)," Entringer said. "When you're in the film room learning, it's different compared to when you're really out there trying (those concepts) out. Being out there getting the opportunity to compete was big."
Now Entringer, Hall and Lee have seen their workloads and responsibilities shift during spring practice. The 11 practices to date have allowed them to get more comfortable within Iowa's scheme and gain confidence ahead of the summer period.
So far, their growth has been noticeable.
"I think they've made a lot of strides," DeJean said. "They played scout team last year and got a few reps in practice and stuff with the (second team) but I think they've taken a lot a lot of steps (this spring) toward learning the playbook and understanding the different techniques. I think (defensive coordinator Phil Parker) has done a great job of helping them out, as well as the older guys."
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Next Saturday's spring game will be the first opportunity for the viewing public to see the progression of Iowa's defensive back room. For Iowa's young reserves, it's equally important to improve on the field but also to stay sharp mentally and understand that their opportunity to step up could arrive at any moment.
"It's all about staying ready," Hall said. "You never know when the next man is going to go down. You can never 'Oh, that guy's good, I won't be going in today'. No, you always have to be ready and stay prepared."