The Iowa Hawkeyes have a lot to be excited about after a dominant 6-game win streak to end the season, and this year’s best position group will look to set the tone early. Kirk Ferentz has one of his more experienced teams of late as he enters his 23rd season as head coach. As usual with the Hawks, there are plenty of veterans on both sides of the ball. However, the best Hawkeye position group for 2021 has guys with multiple years of playing time under their belt. This year, it’s the defensive backs who are the best individual unit on the team and possibly in the nation.
Every year, the Hawks seem to have one of the best defenses in the nation led by a handful of veterans. Last year, the veterans included Nick Niemann and Daviyon Nixon. The year before, the D-Line was one of the best in the country with AJ Epenesa and Cedrick Lattimore. Now, in 2021, it’s the defensive backs’ who return the veteran presence in Phil Parker‘s “Bend-Don’t-Break” defense. Of the seven returning starters on defense, five of them are in the secondary – and they are all multi-year starters.
Split out wide, the Hawks will have two seniors with loads of playing time in the last two seasons in Riley Moss and Matt Hankins. The two combined for 3 interceptions and 84 tackles in just 8 games last year. Hankins has played in a total of 39 games as a Hawkeye, and will probably add 13 to 15 to his resume after 2021. In fact, he has started in at least one game every season since 2017 and is set to make this his fifth straight year to do so.
Dane Belton lines up in the slot as the “younger” guy out there, but he’s still played in 16 games in the last two years and recorded 33 tackles each of those years. In 2020, Belton led the team with 5 pass-breakups showing his ability to keep the ball away from his guy. With the two seniors lining up on either side of him, Belton adds to the already deep cornerback room.
Jack Koerner will again be the leader of the defense this year at safety. Koerner recorded three straight games with a pick in 2020 against Northwestern, Michigan State, and Minnesota while gathering 45 tackles on the season. When Koerner is back deep, there’s just a sense of confidence in the defense in that they’ll keep control of the game. Joining him at safety is another “young” guy in Kaevon Merriweather. Merriweather played in 5 games as a true freshman back in 2018. After redshirting 2019, he played in all eight games with five starts at safety next to Koerner last year. These two will continue to be a great combination in the secondary in 2021. Their combined experience back deep will give Hawk fans a great sense of comfort week-in and week-out.
To see this amount of experience come back on one side of the ball is great, but in one position it’s massive for defensive chemistry. This will show in the stats and, most importantly, in wins. It’s a huge luxury to have a defensive backs group available to come in if the offense starts out slow. Iowa ranked 5th and 6th in defensive points per game in 2019 and 2020, respectively. They were also ranked 8th in total defense last season. In the last two years, Iowa has only allowed an average of 14.5 points per game – not bad. This 2021 team is easily capable of achieving similar numbers. And as for the Hawkeye defensive backs, they are fully capable of pushing the defense to another national top-five production level.