Experienced secondary set to lead Iowa football’s defense in 2021

After returning all five of their starters in the secondary from last season’s squad, an experienced defensive backfield will lead the Hawkeyes next season.


Katie Goodale/Daily Iowan via USA TODAY Network

Saturday Dec. 5, 2020; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois wide receiver Casey Washington (left) is tackled by Iowa defensive back Matt Hankins (right) during the second quarter of the Iowa v. Illinois football game at Memorial Stadium.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

Iowa cornerback Matt Hankins started the Hawkeye football team’s Tuesday Zoom conference by asking reporters questions of his own.

“I wanted to switch it up a little bit today,” Hankins said to the two dozen reporters on the video call. “I’ve got a few questions for you all today. How did everybody get into reporting? Was this always your dream?

After Hankins heard the answers he was searching for, the Lewisville, Texas, native began fielding questions, including what career path he wants to get into, presumably after an NFL career — his dream. Hankins, a business major, envisions himself working in the clothing industry, while also earning a living through the real-estate market and investments.

But all that will have to wait at least one more year.

Hankins announced in January that, because of the additional year of eligibility provided by the NCAA this season amid the pandemic, he’ll return for the 2021 season, his fifth as a Hawkeye.

“It’s really nice having a super senior I guess you could call it,” cornerback Riley Moss said. “You can never have too many leaders out on the field.”

After playing in all 12 games in 2017 as a freshman and starting two of them, Hankins has been a constant starter at cornerback for Iowa the last three seasons. Hankins’ return means Iowa’s secondary brings back all five of its starters from last season — including Moss (senior), free safety Jack Koerner (senior), strong safety Kaevon Merriweather (junior), and Dane Belton (junior), the team’s starting cash.

UNI transfer Xavier Williams is in the mix to receive playing time in the secondary as well.

Hankins said Tuesday he returned to address parts of his game he still wants to improve on, including being more physical with receivers. But while he works to better prepare himself for a professional career, Hankins also serves as a leader in Iowa’s experienced secondary.

“Matt has so much knowledge of the game,” Merriweather said. “When he’s in, when he’s out there, he pretty much knows what’s going on before the play even starts. He sees the stances of the receivers and he will tell me things sometimes [before the play]. I think having that experience of playing in this conference, that will really help our defense.”

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With Hankins locking down his side of the field, Iowa’s defense was among the best in the country last season.

The Hawkeyes allowed the fewest yards per play (4.34) in the country and finished with the nation’s sixth-best scoring defense (16 points per game allowed). And the secondary was a big factor in that. No Power Five program has more interceptions that span four seasons than Iowa.

Heading into 2021, the team’s experienced defensive backfield could be all the more important considering what Iowa lost up front from 2020. All-American defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon declared for the NFL Draft, and second-team All-Big Ten defensive end Chauncey Golston and starting defensive tackle Jack Helfin also moved on.

Zach VanValkenburg (who, along with Hankins, is one of four Iowa seniors to return for another season) is the only holdover from last season’s starting defensive line.

“The front guys help us out by getting pressure, make sure we don’t have to stay in coverage as long,” Koerner said. “It’s our job to sort of reciprocate that back to them. If it takes them a little bit longer to get to the quarterback, then it’s our job to stay in coverage a little longer and go up to fill the run gaps. But I don’t foresee any issues.”

Tuesday marked Iowa’s fourth practice of the spring session.

Iowa’s corners and safeties, given the starting experience the group has, may be further along than other position groups. But, in Hankins’ mind, and with defensive coordinator Phil Parker preaching that even an experienced group can still get better, Iowa still has room to improve on the back end.

And plenty of time to do it.

“We’ve got a lot of potential,” Hankins said. “It’s spring practice, it’s not going to be perfect. We don’t have a game next Saturday. But it’s looking good so far.”

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