Iowa rolling in experience in secondary

With Geno Stone, Michael Ojemudia, and Matt Hankins all returning, the Hawkeyes boast plenty of experience in the secondary.

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Iowa rolling in experience in secondary

Iowa defensive back Geno Stone celebrates an interception during Iowa's game against Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington on Saturday, October 13, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Hoosiers 42-16.

Iowa defensive back Geno Stone celebrates an interception during Iowa's game against Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington on Saturday, October 13, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Hoosiers 42-16.

Nick Rohlman

Iowa defensive back Geno Stone celebrates an interception during Iowa's game against Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington on Saturday, October 13, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Hoosiers 42-16.

Nick Rohlman

Nick Rohlman

Iowa defensive back Geno Stone celebrates an interception during Iowa's game against Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington on Saturday, October 13, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Hoosiers 42-16.

Pete Ruden, Sports Editor

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There’s a reason Geno Stone won Iowa football’s New Man In Award on the defensive side: He personified the honor.

Stone burst onto the scene after Iowa’s 28-17 loss to Wisconsin on Sept. 22, 2018. In that game, Badger quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw for 3 touchdowns and exploited an outside linebacker/wide receiver matchup, So Amani Hooker moved to the “cash” position — a linebacker-defensive back hybrid — and Stone slid into the vacated safety slot.

Hooker and Stone both benefited from the change; Hooker earned Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year by racking up 4 interceptions, 7 pass break-ups, and 65 tackles, and Stone snagged 4 picks, defended 7 passes, and made 39 stops.

Hooker has moved on to a professional career with the Tennessee Titans, but the Hawkeye secondary will still enter the season with plenty of experience.

Starting cornerbacks Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins will join Stone in the defensive backfield.

The duo played a key role in helping Iowa rank third in the Big Ten in pass defense, surrendering only 3,393 yards through the air — an average of 184.1 a game.

Their impact started early, holding future Arizona Cardinals draft pick Hakeem Butler to just 3 catches for 35 yards in a 13-3 win over Iowa State on Sept. 9.

The high level of performance continued for most of the season, as the tandem limited explosive plays by opposing offenses and stepped up to make stops in run support.

Ojemudia, who will enter his senior season, recorded 3 picks and 7 pass breakups, and junior Hankins defended 3 passes.

The depth extends far beyond the starters. Each has a capable backup in Riley Moss and Julius Brents, who were thrust into action on numerous occasions last season.

Playing as freshmen, they made their presence felt in their first career starts against Minnesota on Oct. 6.

Moss finished with 2 interceptions, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors in the process, and Brents also picked off a pass. Stone ended the game with a pick as well for good measure.

While things should be all set at cornerback, it gets a little more cloudy experience-wise at safety. Iowa graduated Jake Gervase last season, freeing up a spot opposite Stone.

The slot may be reserved for sophomore Kaevon Merriweather, who saw action in nine games last season.

Merriweather would be a nice athletic asset in the secondary; he received offers of college-basketball scholarships from Western Michigan and Ferris State before switching to football full-time.

Iowa’s safety corps proved to be a strong point last season, but now it’s one of the Hawkeyes’ least deep positions.

Still, Merriweather offers potential in an experienced secondary, and the Hawkeyes know how to develop young defensive backs.

Before Stone received his chance, Hooker took a similar path, serving as a talented backup before being thrown into a starting role. Iowa hopes the same thing will happen at the same position.

If Merriweather steps in and finds a way to contribute similar to Stone last season, Iowa could be on for a big season in defending the pass.