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2022 position previews: Safeties

Kaevon Merriweather is the only returning starter but the Hawkeyes are no less deep at the position

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NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the previous three defensive groups, Iowa’s bunch at safety is returning just Kaevon Merriweather and his seven career starts. He played a bunch last season but the positional alignment often saw Dane Belton get the start over him at safety while a third linebacker was on the field.

This group is no less deep than past iterations, though, and arguably as talented a bunch as you’ll see relative to the baseline talent level at the position. Yes, there is the classic Iowa-born-and-bred walk-on, but between a multi-year contributor and two elite recruits...the Hawkeyes have some choices.

The old hat

As mentioned above, Merriweather is the only guy of the bunch who’s started a game for the Hawkeyes. He was originally slated as the free safety in 2019 before an injury in the Miami (OH) game paved the way for two-year starter Jack Koerner to take his spot and never let it go. Yet that didn’t keep him from putting in the work. He redshirted that season.

He was a regular contributor on the 2020 squad, splitting time at strong safety with Belton-when-he-wasn’t-cash, and finished the season with 23 tackles. Last season he nearly doubled his tackles, with 42, and added an interception and four passes defended.

His trajectory is classic Hawkeye. Multisport athlete & overlooked recruit - he was initially slated to play basketball at Western Michigan - who immediately stepped into a special teams role in 2018. Fought through adversity to become a key contributor the last two seasons.

He’s well-regarded by damn near everybody and if you say a mean thing about him I WILL FIGHT YOU. He’s got a wide range of interests off the field & was given an inaugural award by Iowa’s media contingent.

The next in a long line of former walk-ons at free safety

The list is legitimately too long to for me to recite off the top of my head. I don’t know if Brett Greenwood was the first one or just the one who captured the hearts of Hawkeye fans during (and since) his time in black & gold but that’s as good a starting point as any. Quinn Schulte of Cedar Rapids lingered on the depth chart all of last year before coming in during garbage time and making me yell “ok. okay! OKAYYY!” after an interception at Maryland.

If he’s anything like the guys whose paths’ he’s followed, he’s going to be noticeable in that he isn’t noticeable. Solid tackler. Keeps guys in front of him. Maybe snags an interception or two. He’s a junior but could use the COVID year if he wants so get used to him.

The cash

After a spring out wide as a backup cornerback, the most notable depth chart change ahead of fall camp was Cooper DeJean’s insertion as Iowa’s cash in a 4-2-5 alignment, as well as backing up Merriweather. Could that mean he’s also in line for a lot of playing time at strong safety when Iowa’s in base 4-3? Maybe. But his inclusion at the cash is about as intriguing as that line on the depth chart could be.

DeJean was a high-level recruit coming out of the middle of nowhere, winning adidas’ player of the year award as his high school team won back-to-back state championships. Last season, he ended up getting snaps and special teams looks in 7 games with a handful of tackles. At the prep level, he had eight interceptions his final two seasons and will look to parlay that and all of his Phil Parker download into a strong showing on the field.

His inclusion on the depth chart sent Sebastian Castro off of it. I’ve waxed poetic enough about his highlight tape and hope he is able to take advantage of whatever opportunity is posed to him in his remaining years as a Hawkeye. But I fear he’s just simply been passed over.

The super recruit

True freshman Xavier Nwankpa bears mentioning here, as well, given his recruitment. As Thad Nelson put it, he received the highest praise Kirk Ferentz is capable of giving during Big Ten Media Day:

Fans, no doubt, are counting down the days until he sees the field. He’s a physical specimen at 6’2”, 210, and 16 interceptions over his time at Southeast Polk. No doubt having him on board played a part in landing his former teammate Kadyn Proctor.

The likely path forward seems to be super special teamer this fall with a smattering of playing time in the secondary before having pole position on Merriweather’s spot when he leaves after this season.

The depth

Junior Reggie Bracy is the fifth guy listed on the most recent depth chart so bears mentioning here. Senior Dallas Craddeith has stuck around after being a coveted recruit to carve out a role on special teams. Redshirt freshman Jaxon Rexroth has my attention at 6’2” 213. True freshman Koen Entriger sticks out among the non-Nwankpas from the 2022 class as a candidate for time at safety as well.

Iowa is light on experience at safety but heavy on intrigue as we head into the season. There’s plenty of talent for Iowa to build out a very, very good contingent at safety.