Let’s travel in a time machine back to the summer of 2019. Imagine being told that Julius Brents and DJ Johnson (the two players considered by most fans at the time to be the heir apparent at the cornerback position) have both transferred to other power five schools and that the Hawkeyes failed to secure a single commitment from a cornerback in the 2021 recruiting class. Now imagine learning that Iowa is projected to have as much depth and talent at the cornerback position this season as it has at any point in recent memory.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker has done a remarkable job transforming the cornerback position into a consistent area of strength for the Hawkeye program, and his hard work has paid off with an embarrassment of riches for the 2021 season. Thanks to Parker’s eye for identifying under the radar talent and his skill at player development (along with a little help from the NCAA and the transfer portal), Iowa’s secondary should be a force to be reckoned with this year. The only question remaining: which players will ultimately win the competition for the two starting spots? Let’s meet the contenders:
The One Who Never Graduates
Matt Hankins was a member of Iowa’s 2017 recruiting class, and has watched fellow signees such as Tristan Wirfs, A.J. Epenesa, and Geno Stone carve out roles for themselves at the next level. Instead of following his former teammates to the NFL after four seasons in Iowa City, Hankins opted to capitalize on the extra year of eligibility afforded to athletes after the COVID-shortened 2020 season and return to school to improve his draft stock. The Hawkeyes will undoubtedly be better for it.
Hankins saw the field immediately after arriving on campus in 2017 and has steadily improved throughout his time in the program, starting 27 games over the past four seasons. Hankins was an honorable-mention All-Conference designee last year and showed a good combination of cover skills and open field tackling that will make him a real asset to the defensive backfield in 2021. With 168 tackles, sixteen pass deflections, and three interceptions under his belt, Hankins is a virtual lock to start for the Hawkeyes this season, assuming the injuries that kept him off the field for portions of 2018 and 2019 don’t slow him down again.
The Criminally Underrated One
Riley Moss was the target of fan derision after a particularly brutal game against Purdue during his freshman season, but the rising senior has quietly become one of Iowa’s most impactful defenders in the years since his baptism by fire. Moss has excellent speed which allows him to shine both in coverage and after the catch (see his pick six against Michigan State last season) and has the size necessary to match up against larger receivers.
Moss pulled in two interceptions last season in addition to 43 tackles and four pass deflections, which was enough to earn him 3rd team All-Big Ten honors from Phil Steele and honorable mention distinctions from both the coaches and the media. Moss also led the conference and finished sixth in the country in interception return yards, which was a particularly impressive feat considering that Iowa only played eight games last season. Based on the trajectory of his improvement over the past few years, Moss will be an extremely difficult player to keep off the field in 2021.
Xavior Williams’ decision to commit to Iowa in December 2020 felt as surprising at the time as it did necessary. With most fans expecting Matt Hankins to jump to the NFL, the former UNI standout was viewed as an important addition who could fill a clear position of need for the Hawkeyes.
Hankins’ return to school does little to diminish the importance of adding Williams to the roster, however. Versatile enough to play cornerback or safety and with the requisite experience needed to learn multiple positions, the absolute floor for Williams this season is that of a jack of all trades utility piece in the secondary who can also contribute to the return game on special teams. If Williams can pick up where he left off at UNI (first team All-Conference in 2019, freshman All-American in 2017), he could prove to be a hugely disruptive force in the secondary next year.
The Patient One
As undeniably great as it is for Iowa to have Williams and Hankins on the roster this season, there is a part of me that is disappointed that we likely won’t get to see Terry Roberts start in 2021. The normally reserved Kirk Ferentz raved about Roberts’ play last season, calling him “extraordinary” and predicting that he would inevitably emerge as a successful every down player for the Hawkeyes. Most experts expected Roberts to have a clear track towards such a role when the season ended in 2020, but recent roster changes may delay that promotion by another year.
In the meantime, Roberts should provide excellent cornerback depth and continue to be one of Iowa’s most impactful special teams players. Roberts has distinguished himself by showing a knack for always being around the football. The team needs someone to steer an Iowa State player into his return man to force the game-clinching fumble? Roberts is there.
Iowa needs someone to recover critical fumbles against Northwestern and Nebraska? Roberts is there.
The rising junior may very well be the fourth cornerback on the roster this season, but when Iowa needs a new leader at the position to take over for Hankins, Moss, and Williams in 2022, Hawkeye fans can rest easy knowing that Roberts is there.
Jermari Harris is only a redshirt sophomore, but has looked solid in his limited game action over the past two seasons and was singled out by the coaches as one of the players who particularly impressed them this spring and could be another name to watch heading into 2022. Redshirt freshmen AJ Lawson and Brenden Deasfernandes aren’t likely to factor into the equation this season but are intriguing prospects whose combination of size (both players are listed at 6’0”) and cover skills track nicely with Parker’s history of developing effective players with similar profiles.
With several questions remaining about the depth and preparedness of the defensive line, a strong secondary will be absolutely essential to Iowa’s defensive success this season. Fortunately, the Hawkeyes’ talent and experience at the cornerback position should help bolster this unit and help it become one of the conference’s best.