Secondary nature

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Secondary nature

Iowa defensive back Manny Rugamba deflects a pass during the game between Michigan and Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, November 12, 2016. Iowa kicker Keith Duncan nailed a 33 yard field goal as the time ran out to beat the No. 2 Wolverines 14-13. (The Daily Iowan/ Alex Kroeze)

Iowa defensive back Manny Rugamba deflects a pass during the game between Michigan and Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, November 12, 2016. Iowa kicker Keith Duncan nailed a 33 yard field goal as the time ran out to beat the No. 2 Wolverines 14-13. (The Daily Iowan/ Alex Kroeze)

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Josep

Iowa defensive back Manny Rugamba deflects a pass during the game between Michigan and Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, November 12, 2016. Iowa kicker Keith Duncan nailed a 33 yard field goal as the time ran out to beat the No. 2 Wolverines 14-13. (The Daily Iowan/ Alex Kroeze)

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Josep

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Josep

Iowa defensive back Manny Rugamba deflects a pass during the game between Michigan and Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, November 12, 2016. Iowa kicker Keith Duncan nailed a 33 yard field goal as the time ran out to beat the No. 2 Wolverines 14-13. (The Daily Iowan/ Alex Kroeze)

Adam Hensley, [email protected]

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Desmond King, unanimous consensus All-American and the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner? Graduated.

Greg Mabin, Iowa’s cornerback with 26 starts? Graduated.

Brandon Snyder, starting safety tied for a team-high 3 interceptions in 2016? Torn ACL.

To some, this may appear to be a depleted secondary, unproven, untested faces taking the field for the first time as a unit.

To Iowa, it’s an opportunity.

Opening weekend served the Hawkeyes a tall order: Josh Allen, one of the nation’s best quarterback prospects. Wyoming’s signal caller, projected by many NFL scouts to be a top-10 draft selection, finished last season as a human highlight reel. He possesses a cannon of an arm and underrated speed and vision as a ball carrier.

Iowa’s defense didn’t back down. Before the opener, Iowa’s corners relished the opportunity to challenge a quarterback loaded with talent.

Josh Jackson called it “a fun challenge” to square off against Allen and Company.

A fun challenge it was.

Iowa’s secondary flexed its muscles on Wyoming’s opening drive, forcing the Cowboys to go three-and-out.

On the second play of the drive, Allen fired a quick pass to the sideline. Jackson connected with the receiver milliseconds after the ball touched his hands, rocking him for no gain.

The next play, Allen looked to a receiver running a route toward the sidelines, approximately 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Safety Jake Gervase jumped the route, almost coming down with an interception but bringing out Wyoming’s punt team.

Later in the game, on a third-and-1, Wyoming tossed the ball to running back Nico Evans. Gervase swarmed the ball carrier, bringing him down for a 3-yard loss.

“It felt good,” Gervase said. “Got the jitters out of the way.”

The Hawkeyes’ secondary contained Allen in the first half; the junior completed 11-of-14 attempts but only for 66 yards.

On Wyoming’s first drive of the second half, Allen took his first deep shot of the game, a 40-yard throw to the end zone, targeting Jackson’s receiver. Jackson leaped over Allen’s intended target and swatted the ball away.

Wyoming punted two plays later.

Jackson wasn’t done; he came away with a crucial turnover early in the fourth quarter.

Allen fired a pass to the sideline, but Jackson read the play perfectly, snagging the interception and returning it 41 yards.

That was Jackson’s first interception as a Hawkeye, and it came against one of the best quarterback prospects in the country.

“We just all stuck together,” he said after the game.

Numerous times, leading up to the first game of the season and after the win, Jackson referred any questions regarding the task of proving himself to the secondary as a cohesive unit.

“I’m more worried about being a reliable teammate, a great teammate for the rest of my guys,” Jackson said.

A starting group of Jackson and Michael Ojemudia at corner and Gervase and Miles Taylor at safety didn’t seem like a potent quartet to stifle a high-powered Cowboy offense.

In fact, the secondary looked much different compared with the season finale against Florida in the Outback Bowl.

 

Rugamba shines against Michigan

Manny Rugamba got his first start as a Hawkeye in Iowa’s 14-13 upset win over then-No. 2 Michigan when Mabin was sidelined with ankle issues.

“I wouldn’t say nervous, I would say I was more excited: my first start, and it was a big game,” he said. “It was a learning experience.”

A true sophomore at the time, Rugamba notched 4 tackles, broke up 3 passes, and snagged a crucial interception late in the game. Not only did Rugamba’s efforts catapult Iowa into ESPN headlines after the win, he made a name for himself in one of the biggest victories in recent memory.

“He can cover anybody,” Snyder said. “He’s super talented; he’s got great feet. He’s always finishing. He’s always competing to get the ball out. I think you saw it in the Michigan game: He never gives up on a play. I think that’s a characteristic you can’t always teach.”

 

The end of an era

King and Mabin composed one of the Big Ten’s best one-two cornerback punches. The duo intercepted 17 passes over the past four seasons, defended 50 passes, and racked up more than 400 tackles.

Both graduated and currently reside on NFL rosters — King on the Los Angeles Chargers and Mabin on the Buffalo Bills.

Starting roles, once locked, are now held by younger players trying to continue the tradition of dependable Hawkeye secondaries.

“There are a lot of guys who came before us, and we’re not just trying to fill their shoes, but we’re trying to be Hawkeyes, on and off the field,” Rugamba said.

One might say it’s the passing of the torch.

Before they left, they made their impact on the program, but not just by winning games and filling stat sheets.

“Seeing [King and Mabin’s] technique, and seeing their focus, how they approach a game, how to approach a practice [was big],” Ojemudia said.

Jackson, Ojemudia, and Rugamba — once hidden behind the previous dynamic cornerback duo — rose on the depth chart following King’s and Mabin’s departure.

The elevation comes with added leadership.

“Being an older guy, you have to just get everybody on the same level,” Jackson said. “You have to come in with a different attitude. There’s no slacking off. You have to come in with a mindset to get better and push the younger guys to help them get better. It’s more of a mature role. The young guys are looking to follow … The younger guys are looking to us and how we practice. So the way we practice sets [the tone] for everybody else.”

 

Snyder gets sidelined, Gervase shines in spring game

Minutes before Iowa’s spring practice in West Des Moines, the program announced that Snyder had torn his ACL.

Snyder said the injury occurred during a special-team drill during the third week of spring ball. Locked up with a teammate, the junior said he felt his knee buckle.

“It didn’t hurt at all, I just got up, walked off,” Snyder said.

He noticed his knee click as the day went on, and after a while, it started to lock up, raising questions and leading Snyder to believe it was more than just a hiccup.

After tying for a team-high in interceptions, ranking third in tackles (85), and notching 3 tackles for a loss, he has a new role as he battles back from injury.

“My job is to train, and it’s to coach these guys,” he said. “I have a lot of experience in the Big Ten, a lot of experience as an Iowa safety. It’s my job to coach these guys, and keep mentoring them, and give them all of my experience.”

Enter Gervase, a walk-on from Davenport. Through two years with the program, the junior recorded 6 tackles. No pass breakups. No interceptions. Gervase went under the radar, a name without a face, until the spring game on April 21.

Fans yearned to get their first glimpse of quarterbacks Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers running the offense, but what they witnessed was The Jake Gervase Show. He intercepted 3 passes and ran one back for a touchdown.

“Yeah, it looked like [Gervase] had the script,” Kirk Ferentz said after the game. “He looked like he got good jumps on those balls, read them well, and made some good plays, certainly. If this was hockey, he’d be the No. 1 star of the game, no question about that.”

 

Changes at corner fewer than two weeks until kickoff

Ojemudia, known to his coaches and teammates as “O.J.,” took over the starting cornerback role earlier than anticipated.

News broke on Aug. 22 that Rugamba was suspended for Iowa’s opener against Wyoming because he violated a team policy.

Facing arguably the best arm in the country in Allen, the Hawkeyes turned to Ojemudia, a sophomore corner, to fill Rugamba’s role. “It’s a good opportunity for me, for all of us,” Ojemudia said before the Wyoming game. “There are a lot of new names stepping up. It’s an opportunity to see what we’ve got [and] to prove ourselves.”

 

Regrouping for Iowa State

Despite Rugamba’s absence against Wyoming, Iowa’s defense — the secondary, specifically — held its own against serious talent.

The annual Cy-Hawk game’s stakes are higher than those of a season-opener against a non-Power-5 school, however.

In 2015, Iowa’s secondary sealed the win against Iowa State: King’s interception late in the fourth quarter hammered home the final nail in the Cyclones’ coffin. The following year, Iowa’s defense shut down Iowa State’s offense, holding the Cyclones to fewer than 300 yards of offense, 3.6 yards per rush, and a 40 percent completion rate in the passing game.

But it’s a new group traveling to Ames, one that’s embracing the spotlight and refusing to back down from whatever task is thrown its way.

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