Iowa Football: Previewing The Hawkeyes Secondary

IOWA CITY, IOWA- OCTOBER 22: Wide receiver Quintez Cephus
IOWA CITY, IOWA- OCTOBER 22: Wide receiver Quintez Cephus /

In our seventh and final position preview, we take a look at the back end of the defense. No other unit lost as much talent as the secondary did, as the Hawkeyes lost both starting corners to graduation and free safety Brandon Snyder to an ACL tear.

With Josh Allen coming to town to open the season, Defensive coordinator/defensive back coach Phil Parker has four weeks to straighten out the rotation in the back end. The youth movement in the secondary is exciting, but I would urge fans to keep realistic expectations for this season, Desmond King isn’t walking out of the tunnel anymore.

As Desmond King’s draft stock plummeted over the last calendar year, starting off last season as a top twenty caliber pick before ultimately dropping to the San Diego Chargers in the fifth round, so did the perception of his on-field performance as a senior. That perception was unwarranted, it wasn’t realistic to expect him to repeat his 2015 campaign when he racked up 72 tackles  and eight interceptions, earning himself the Jim Thorpe award as the nation’s best defensive back. Going into last season Desmond King was the focal point of every opponent’s game plan. Teams rarely attacked him, often trying to avoid his side of the field altogether. His draft stock dropped due to a poor senior bowl showing and disappointing combine numbers, not because of his play on the field.

The point is, Iowa lost an incredible cover corner with superb ball skills and excellent physicality against the run in Desmond King, players like him don’t come around often. Iowa’s #2 corner for the last three seasons, Greg Mabin, also graduated. Inexperience reigns supreme at the position, so who will step up?

It appears that the opening day starters will be sophomore Manny Rugamba and redshirt junior Josh Jackson. Both players have game experience playing in the nickel package, and both made starts last season in place of an injured Mabin. In their limited opportunities, both have flashed the type of speed and physicality that has the coaching staff believing they can thrive in bigger roles.

Rugamba was particularly impressive last season, unseating the incumbent nickelback Jackson and recording 19 tackles, two picks and six pass deflections. Jackson showed impressive work ethic after his benching, and produced two tackles for loss and three pass deflections against Nebraska and Florida while filling in for the injured Rugamba. While neither is Desmond King, the two of them can become a more than formidable duo.

Right behind those two is sophomore Michael Ojemudia, who saw action in all 13 games last season. He has fantastic size for the position at 6’2, 200lbs, so it’s possible that he will line up on the outside while Jackson or Rugamba shift inside in the nickel. Having a nickelback that big and two starters with experience as slot corners should give Iowa great versatility in pass coverage.

While the new starters at cornerback have given us a taste of what the future may hold, the battle at free safety is much more uncertain.

Iowa was dealt a major blow when Brandon Snyder tore his ACL in a spring practice. Snyder was one of the best surprises of the 2016 season, the coaching staff was surely expecting him to play a major role this year.

In his absence, a lot will be asked of returning strong safety Miles Taylor.

There was already a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Taylor, the only senior in the secondary, before Snyder’s injury. If we’re being honest, the importance of the role Taylor has on this defense is concerning.

After an impressive sophomore campaign, which featured 69 tackles, five pass deflections and a pick, Taylor took a step back last season. He didn’t record a single interception or pass deflection in 10 starts, (a concussion against Michigan cut his regular season short, and he was on the bench for the Outback bowl after being medically cleared)  he routinely was burned in coverage and allowed several big runs by taking poor angles. Too many games featured a mixed bag of results, his game tape against Wisconsin is proof of that.

The ability is there, his sophomore season is proof of that, but he needs to bounce back in a big way with all of the inexperience surrounding him.

As for Snyder’s replacement, it seems as though it has become a two man battle between junior Jack Gervase and sophomore Amani Hooker.

Hooker became a popular name after Snyder went down, he was a jack of all trades player in high school and had a great prep basketball career. His raw athleticism combined with his 210 pound frame is exciting to think about, and it carved out a nice special teams role for him last season, but the walk-on Gervase is currently listed as the starter.

When a walk on wins a starting job, that usually generates a collective eye roll from the fans. But before you smirk in disinterested fashion, remember Snyder was also a walk on last season. That turned out pretty well, didn’t it?

The former high school quarterback took control of the #1 spot on the depth chart with his spring game performance, where he grabbed three interceptions and returned one for a touchdown.

Other than his spring game tape, there isn’t much to dissect of him. He’s a question mark heading into the season, and we won’t know if he’ll be able to handle starting duties until the games get under way. But with Snyder out, Gervase might be the best the Hawkeyes have.

It’s also worth noting that the Hawkeyes have six incoming freshmen in the defensive backfield. Given the general inexperience of the group, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a true freshman or two earn some playing time this season.

On a hunch, I would say that Geno Stone and Matt Hankins have the best chance of getting on the field right away. The Big Ten is a physical conference, and Stone, well, I’ll just leave this here:

As for Hankins, he’s the most likely to make a quick adjustment to the level of competition after playing his high school football in Texas. Not to mention Iowa snagged him away from Jim Harbaugh. 

With so much open competition, it’s quite possible that the secondary will look completely different in mid-October than it does on opening day. There will be players that won’t get any time against Wyoming who could end up being fan favorites by black Friday.

That’s just the ebb and flow of college football.