This offseason, Black Heart Gold Pants is undertaking the unenviable task of ranking the greatest players of the Kirk Ferentz era. From 1999-2019, we’re emptying the memory banks, popping in the highlight tapes, and embracing the controversy as we try to determine who stands out as the best of the best. We’ll start by ranking the top five players at every position group before moving on to the top 25 players regardless of position. Rankings are based on college performance and do not take professional success into account.
First on tap: defensive backs.
Few position groups have produced more standouts during the Ferentz era than the secondary. From lockdown cornerbacks to hard-hitting safeties, Iowa has produced some of the conference’s best defensive backs over the past two decades. However, its easy to forget just how many absolute studs have developed under the tutelage of defensive back maestro Phil Parker until they’re all listed in front of you. Several of the players who probably would have topped similar lists for other programs missed out on this top five list altogether, which speaks to how consistent Iowa has been at producing stars in the secondary during Ferentz and Parkers’ time in the program.
Without further ado, here are my picks for the top five D backs of the Ferentz era, with the composite staff rankings to follow below:
5. Shaun Prater (2008-2011)
Prater is often left out of the discussions of the best defensive backs in Hawkeye history, and that’s almost criminal given what a standout player he was during his time in the black and gold. A three-year starter at cornerback and two-time recipient of First Team All-Big Ten honors, Prater made his mark as a sure tackler and excellent cover man. Few if any cornerbacks under Ferentz could cover as much ground as be as disruptive in zone defense as Prater, who at times proved he could lock down an entire half of the field during his later years in the program. His toughness, athleticism, smarts, and cover skills made him one of the best all-around defensive backs of his era.
4. Tyler Sash (2008-2010)
A legendary Hawkeye who passed away far too young, Sash was a big play waiting to happen every time he took the field. From his knack for creating turnovers to his punishing hits, Sash was a force during his three years as Iowa’s starting strong safety, and he has the fifth-most career interceptions in Iowa history (13).
Sash’s consistency helped him earn two First-Team All-Big Ten honors in addition to a Third-Team All-American nod his junior year, but he will forever be remembered for his role in some of the most exciting interceptions in Hawkeye history. Fitting for a man whose 392 interception return yards rank give him the fourth-highest total in conference history for that category.
Tyler Sash played every game of football like he was a ten-year-old in his backyard, and few defensive players in Iowa history have been more fun to watch.
3. Josh Jackson (2015-2017)
Jackson is a difficult player to rank. He was solid if somewhat unspectacular through his first two-and-a-half seasons before going supernova during the second half of his junior year and producing arguably the highest peak of any defensive back in program history. Jackson stole Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett’s soul after picking him off three times in Iowa’s 55-24 route of the Buckeyes,
only to emerge as something of a one-man team the next week in a loss to Wisconsin when he became the first player in history to return two interceptions for touchdowns in a Big Ten conference game.
Jackson finished his junior year with eight interceptions and 18 pass deflections, was a Unanimous Consensus First-Team All-American, won the Tatum-Woodson Award for the best defensive back in the conference, and was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. He never allowed a catch of greater than 18 yards that season and produced the single highest season-long grade ever given to a cornerback by Pro Football Focus.
In four years of grading college football, no cornerback produced a more dominant season than Joshua Jackson in 2017! pic.twitter.com/DLl2WYcdKi— PFF (@PFF) April 11, 2018
Call him a one-year wonder if you wish, but what a wonderous year it was.
2. Bob Sanders (2000-2003)
Has there ever been a more intimidating 5’8” player to step onto a football field? Demond “Bob” Sanders showed Iowa fans what he was all about early on, earning a reputation for absolutely erasing people on special teams (see 12:45 in the video below).
Over the next four years, Sanders became one of the fiercest hitters and most dominant safeties in the Big Ten, earning First-Team All-Conference honors three times and being named a Second-Team All-American as a senior in 2003. From nabbing the game-winning interception against Texas Tech in the 2001 Alamo Bowl
to recording sixteen tackles and forcing three fumbles against Minnesota in his final game in Kinnick Stadium,
Sanders was the heartbeat of Iowa’s most successful four-year run during the Ferentz. As if his credentials weren’t impressive enough, “the Hitman” went on to win Super Bowl XLI and be named the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year with the Indianapolis Colts. A few superlatives from my fellow writers:
“Sanders was a true program changer with his playtime correlating with Iowa’s turnaround so closely it was almost cause and effect.” -BoilerHawk
“Nobody walks into Bob Sanders’ Hit Club and leaves upright.” -JPinIC
1. Desmond King (2013-2016)
As Omar Little once said, “you come at the king, you best not miss.” Well for some reason opposing quarterbacks just kept coming at Desmond King over his four years at Iowa, allowing him to snag 14 career interceptions, including a program-leading eight picks in his transcendent 2015 season. A two-time First-Team All-Conference and All-American honoree at cornerback, the winner of the 2015 Tatum-Woodson and Thorpe awards, and a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection as a return man to boot, King was as dominant a force as Iowa’s defense has seen during the Ferentz era and an absolute gamebreaker in the defensive secondary.
What made King so impactful? From his physical play against the run to his savvy and technically sound cover skills defending the pass, King could absolutely lock down opposing wide receivers. He had the hands of a wide receiver and boasted deceptive speed and agility which made him a constant threat to score on a pick-six, something he did three times while at Iowa.
King was also one of the only players in Big Ten history to record 12+ interceptions and 1,500+ return yards over the course of his career and holds Iowa records for career games played (53) and games started (51). His decision to return to school for his senior season in 2016 was a true testament to the strength of the program, and the lasting legacy of his positive influence and leadership can still be felt in the defensive back room to this date.
Sanders’ greatness is undeniable, but there can only be one King.
Composite BHGP Staff Rankings:
4th (Tie)- Micah Hyde
4th (Tie)- Josh Jackson
3rd- Jovon Johnson
2nd- Desmond King
1st- Bob Sanders
BHGP’s Composite Rankings were slightly different than mine, but I’m certainly not brave enough to tell Bob Sanders he doesn’t deserve the number one ranking! This divergence also provides an excellent avenue to show love to two more elite defensive backs in Jovon Johnson (a four-year starter and a 2005 1st-Team All-Conference selection) and Micah Hyde (the top defensive back in the Big Ten in 2012 who also returned two interceptions for touchdowns in 2010). Again, the fact that players like Amari Spievey, Amani Hooker, Brett Greenwood, B.J. Lowery, Bradley Fletcher, and Charles Godfrey didn’t make this list speaks to the absurdity of riches that has blessed Iowa’s secondary under Ferentz.
That’s it for defensive backs, but tune in next week for our rankings of the top linebackers to come up under Kirk Ferentz.