Defensive back Xavier Nwankpa picking up Iowa defense

The five-star recruit is still learning the ins and outs of a Hawkeye defense that led the nation in interceptions in 2021.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

Iowa safety Xavier Nwankpa interacts with the media during Hawkeye Football Media Day at the Iowa football practice facility in Iowa City on Aug. 12, 2022.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

Though he’s not listed on Iowa football’s preseason two-deep depth chart, freshman defensive back Xavier Nwankpa is still trying to get better.

Multiple outlets listed the Pleasant Hill, Iowa, product as a five-star recruit following his career at Southeast Polk High School. After receiving his first taste of college football during spring practice, Nwankpa said he’s been playing free safety during summer training camp.

Juniors Quinn Schulte and Reggie Bracy are currently the two free safeties listed on Iowa’s depth chart.

“The recruitment doesn’t mean anything once you get here,” Nwankpa said at Iowa Football Media Day on Friday. “You still got to earn your spot, show your stripes. You got to get better every day.”

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said he’s liking how Nwankpa is progressing. In the last few days, Parker has seen Nwankpa make some big plays.

“He understands what he has to do to keep on working hard,” Parker said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how he is three or four weeks down the road.”

A point of emphasis for the 6-foot-2 2021 Adidas All-American is understanding the Hawkeyes’ 4-2-5 defense. Nwankpa said he gets Iowa’s defense, to an extent. He added that he’s trying to pick up as much as he can during training camp.

Iowa’s starting strong safety, Kaevon Merriweather, is Nwankpa’s roommate at the hotel the Hawkeyes are staying at during training camp. Merriweather has been with the Hawkeyes since 2018, and he’s participated 33 contests in the Black and Gold.

Merriweather described Nwankpa as a student of the game, noting that, anytime they sit down together, Nwankpa wants to soak up knowledge.

“I think he understands that there’s so much that he can learn, not only from coach Parker, but from the older guys in the room as well,” Merriweather said.

Mentoring Nwankpa has been a special experience for the fifth-year senior. Merriweather has been passing information he learned from the likes of former Hawkeye defensive backs Geno Stone, Amani Hooker, and Jake Gervase down to Nwankpa.

As for when Nwankpa could fully comprehend Iowa’s defense, Merriweather said it will take time.

“Our defense is pretty complex,” Merriweather said. “So, I think when X gets the defense down, he’ll get it down, but like I said, he’s continuing to learn it. Day-by-day, he’s getting better. You can see the talent that he has just from an athletic standpoint.”

In 2021, Iowa’s defense ranked first in the nation with 25 interceptions. The Hawkeyes are returning seven defensive starters in 2022, including 2021 Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Riley Moss.

On its preseason depth chart, Iowa didn’t name a starting punt or kick returner. Former Hawkeye and 2021 Big Ten Returner of the Year Charlie Jones transferred from Iowa to Purdue during the offseason.

Hawkeye special teams coordinator LeVar Woods said several athletes are in position to claim a starting spot at kick or punt returner. Nwankpa is one of the players Woods thinks can fill the hole left by Jones.

“He’s in the mix,” Woods said. “I don’t think he is quite ready for that yet, but I think that kid is a good football player. I think over the next few months and over the course of the year, you are going to see a different kid.”