I could “ctrl+c / ctrl+v” what Matt Reisener wrote about cornerbacks into this portion of the safeties preview. In it, he called the corners and “embarrassment of riches” and when examining the safety position, it’s almost the exact same. Iowa returns three guys with starting experience, brings in a versatile defensive back from UNI, recruited an all-world prospect from middle of nowhere Iowa, and still has plenty in the pipeline to be excited about.
So let’s get into it.
The returning starters
Both Kaevon Merriweather & Jack Koerner stand at 6’0”, 205 lbs though both have pretty different skillsets. Merriweather, if you’ll remember, started the first game of 2019 at free safety before an injury kept him out of all but one other game. This allowed him to maintain his redshirt and slide over to strong safety, a position he didn’t relinquish in 2020 after posting 23 tackles in 5 starts and all 8 games. The 5 starts, I believe, is a little misleading because in Iowa’s new base 4-2-5 defense, he’s the guy at strong safety but we’ll get to that difference in a bit. His 2020 season was also highlighted by his ascension as a clear team leader, which caught plenty of people by surprise, but he backed it up.
Anyways, his trajectory is in line with past Hawkeye defensive backs: underrecruited (was previously committed to Western Michigan for basketball), immediate special teams contributor (just one tackle but saw action in all 2018 games), and now a starter who looks like he’ll have the spot until he’s gone, which would be 2022 barring the type of 2021 season which sees him head to the next level.
Koerner has a similarly known trajectory as the classic walk-on who finds his way into Iowa’s defensive backfield and plays what feels like mistake-free football. He was Iowa’s #2 tackler in 2019, his sophomore season, with 81 in 12 games. After a scary jet ski accident last summer, he recovered in time to play all 8 of Iowa’s games and posted 45 tackles (tied for third) and a team-high 3 interceptions.
With both guys taking part in tonight’s virtual event, it’s pretty clear it’ll take a lot to dethrone them from their current positions atop the depth chart.
The other strong safety
It bears mentioning because he did start all 8 games, including the 3 Merriweather did not, but Iowa’s CASH starter, Dane Belton (6’1”, 190 lbs), has the ability to slide into Iowa’s strong safety role when the defense goes classic 4-3 to match opponent personnel. In those three games (Purdue, Minnesota, & Wisconsin), he had 13 of his 33 tackles, including a career high six against Wisconsin. I do not believe he is long for this world, as that versatile skillset is very likely coveted at the next level a la previous CASH Amani Hooker.
The golden boy
Cooper DeJean is the freakiest of freak athletes Iowa has recruited to the defensive backfield. He was all over the Drake Relays and Iowa State track meets with, frankly, incredible numbers with three wins at State in the long jump, 100 meter dash, and 4x100 relay.
He won two state football titles, with his senior year being at QB and being named adidas’ player of the year with over 4500 yards & 62 touchdowns.
Final: OABCIG 33, Van Meter 26. Falcons repeat as state #iahsfb in dramatic fashion behind two Cooper DeJean TDs with 1:30 and 1:11 left. Classic title game in Class 1A between two great teams.— IHSAA (@IHSAA) November 20, 2020
And, oh yeah, he dunks a basketball with ease (to be fair, Merriweather is also in this camp).
Copper is really like that at— All-American Bowl (@AABonNBC) January 14, 2021
2021 All-American Cooper DeJean (@cdejean23) throws down a dunk. #Hawkeyes #AllAmericanBowl
At any other school, he would probably be playing offense with it eventually building around his skillset whether it be at QB or another skill position. At Iowa, he’s tailor made to be a multiyear starter at safety with the likelihood of doing the same in the NFL.
Xavior Williams (5’11”, 190 lbs) came to Iowa with the expectation that Matt Hankins might leave and he could slide into that cornerback role. Now, he seems like a capable guy without a home but ability to play anywhere in Iowa’s defensive backfield. At UNI, he gathered 9 interceptions and 21 pass breakups. As Matt noted in his CB preview, he has the ability to contribute as a returner which may be his best path to playing time.
Reggie Bracy & Quinn Schulte are listed as backups to Merriweather & Koerner. Dallas Craddeith was highly rated coming out of high school and is trending upward. Sebastian Casto has hilarious tape as a recruit.
So yeah, an embarrassment of riches.