Citrus Bowl marks final game for several of Iowa’s ‘Doughboyz’

A variety of players from Iowa’s experienced defensive backfield could be making their final appearances as Hawkeyes on Saturday.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa defensive back Kaevon Merriweather uses a TV reporter’s camera to film teammates during the Vrbo Citrus Bowl Day for Kids at Fun Spot America Theme Park in Orlando, Fla., on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. Citrus Bowl Day for Kids is a 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl sponsored event that hosts both Iowa and Kentucky. Players from both teams grouped up with children and participated in rides and various activities around the theme park.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

ORLANDO, Fla. — Safety Kaevon Merriweather took a break from riding roller coasters and driving go-karts to reminisce about the end of an era for Iowa’s defensive backfield.

Merriweather is only a junior, but the Hawkeyes could be losing other experienced players in their secondary after Saturday’s Citrus Bowl. Cornerbacks Riley Moss and Matt Hankins, as well as free safety Jack Koerner, are all seniors. Starting “Cash” Dane Belton is only a junior, but could end up declaring for the NFL Draft after No. 15 Iowa’s (10-3 overall, 7-3 Big Ten) contest with No. 22 Kentucky (9-3, 5-3 SEC).

“It’s definitely going to be exciting to go out there,” Merriweather said Thursday at the Fun Spot America theme park during the Citrus Bowl Day for Kids. “To be able to go out there and compete with everyone, guys I’ve been with even before we called ourselves the Doughboyz… being out there with the guys one last time is going to be surreal.”

With Hankins, a second-team All-Big Ten cornerback, watching from the sideline because of an injury, the current version of the “Doughboyz” will be making one last appearance on Saturday. The Hawkeye DBs adopted that nickname this season, and Merriweather made sure to clarify on Thursday that it is spelled with a “z,” because of Iowa’s ability to intercept passes this season. As Hankins explained earlier this season, the football is seen as money. Picking off a pass is like earning money.

And the Hawkeyes have cashed in plenty of times this season.

Iowa leads the nation with a school record 24 interceptions. But that’s far from the only accolade members of Iowa’s secondary can boast.

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Hankins is in his fifth season starting at cornerback for the Hawkeyes. Moss was recently named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year. Belton leads the conference and is second nationally with five interceptions. Koerner has recorded the most solo tackles (61) of any Hawkeye defensive back in a single season since 2002 (Bob Sanders with 68, Derek Pagel with 63). And Merriweather is in his third season seeing significant snaps at safety.

“I’ve been very blessed, being at Iowa for a long time,” defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Phil Parker said. “I think the last probably well-knit, connected group of guys in the back, was in 2015, where I think it was very unique to go into a room and talk to guys and watch the film and have good conversations about the game of football. I think this group here are very experienced guys, and I think it has a lot of resemblance to the same team of 2015, which was a pretty remarkable year for us.”

Iowa’s Jack Koerner answers a question during a press conference for the 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021.

Iowa’s experienced defensive backs are also very aware of their main targets in Kentucky’s passing game. The Wildcats quarterback, Will Levis, faced off against the Hawkeyes at Penn State last season. Kentucky’s No. 1 wide receiver, Wan’Dale Robinson, previously played Iowa as a member of Nebraska’s program.

Levis has thrown for 23 touchdowns and ran for nine more this season, while Robinson has caught 94 passes for 1,164 yards and seven touchdowns.

This duo will mark the final test for the “Doughboyz.” Or at least most of them.

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Hankins will depart the program this season with hopes of a future in the NFL. Moss will likely do the same, saying there is more than a 50 percent chance this will be his last game at Iowa. The former two-start recruit has an extra year of eligibility remaining if he wants to return to Iowa City for a final season. Koerner has that option too, but has not discussed taking advantage of it. Belton will likely look into NFL feedback and whether or not he wants to declare for the draft after the Citrus Bowl.

So the “Doughboyz” are savoring their time together while it lasts.

“It’s just been awesome,” Koerner said. “Matt [Hankins] and I came on campus the same day back in 2017. We have been literally seeing our relationship grow over the years, not just on the field but off the field as well, and obviously the same with Riley [Moss], as well. Pretty much the whole room, I feel like the past two or three years the room has really come together and a lot of camaraderie in there. It’s a brotherhood in there.

“That’s a testament to the way Coach Parker coaches us and brings us together. When we are in that room or on that field, we are all just thinking about football. We are locked in and just trying to do what’s best for each other.”