• Travis Thornburgh

2019 Football Preview: Defensive Backs and Kick/Punt Returners

We continue our look at the 2019 Iowa Hawkeyes, this time with the guys tasked with stopping opposing wide receivers and changing the tides on special teams: the defensive backs, punt returners, and kick returners.

Defensive Backs

Returners - 2018 Statistics:

Michael Ojemudia, Senior - 23 Solo Tackles, 16 Assists, 3 Interceptions, 6 Pass Deflections

John Milani, Senior - 6 Solo Tackles, 3 Assists

Matt Hankins, Junior - 29 Solo Tackles, 19 Assists, 3 Pass Deflections

Geno Stone, Junior - 29 Solo Tackles, 10 Assists, 4 Interceptions, 1 Touchdown, 3 Pass Deflections, 1 Forced Fumble

Julius Brents, Sophomore - 8 Solo Tackles, 5 Assists, 1 Interception, 3 Pass Deflections

Jack Koerner, Sophomore - 1 Assist

Riley Moss, Sophomore - 20 Solo Tackles, 4 Assists, 2 Interceptions, 3 Pass Deflections

Wes Dvorak, Senior

Devonte Young, Senior

Colton Dinsdale, Senior

Kaevon Merriweather, Sophomore

D.J. Johnson, Redshirt Freshman

Dallas Craddieth, Redshirt Freshman

Terry Roberts, Redshirt Freshman

Departures - 2018 Statistics:

Amani Hooker - 36 Solo Tackles, 29 Assists, 1 Sack, 4 Interceptions, 7 Pass Deflections

Jake Gervase - 46 Solo Tackles, 37 Assists, 4 Interceptions, 6 Pass Deflections, 1 Forced Fumble

Joshua Turner (Transfer) - 4 Solo Tackles, 1 Assist

Trey Creamer (Transfer) Additions:

Dane Belton - Tampa, Florida

Daraun McKinney - River Rouge, Michigan

Thomas Hartlieb - Madison, Wisconsin

Jermari Harris - Chicago, Illinois

Sebastian Castro - Oak Lawn, Illinois

Quinn Schulte - Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Kyler Fisher - Farnhamville, Iowa

Outlook at the Position: The defensive secondary will be the biggest question mark for an Iowa defense that should be solid heading into the 2019 campaign. Phil Parker will have to work his magic again, as Amani Hooker was selected by the Tennessee Titans in April's draft, adding to the list of former Hawkeyes who will anchor defensive secondaries in the NFL. Iowa will also have to replace its leading tackler and starting free safety from a year ago in Jake Gervase, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Los Angeles Rams. The good news is that Iowa returns all three cornerbacks who made starts last year, in Senior Michael Ojemudia, Junior Matt Hankins, and Sophomore Riley Moss. This trio should help to anchor a young and talented secondary as the safeties gain experience.

Much like the backups on the defensive line, the safety position is loaded with young talent that enters the season largely untested. Geno Stone spent the latter part of last season as the starting strong safety after Amani Hooker shifted to the hybrid linebacker/defensive back "Cash" position and brings the most experience in the group. There were some growing pains with Stone, particularly toward the beginning of his time as a starter, but Stone settled into the role as the season wore on and performed well toward the end of the season.

The question marks this year will be Sophomore Kaevon Merriweather at Free Safety and Redshirt Freshman D.J. Johnson who will occupy the "Cash" position.

Potential Emerging Contributors: D.J. Johnson is a redshirt freshman from Indianapolis, Indiana, who was listed as a 4-star (or 3-star depending on the source) cornerback when he committed to Iowa. A 1st team all-conference performer in both football and basketball, Johnson fits the profile of what Coach Kirk Ferentz is looking for in a player. Johnson will likely employ a different strategy when playing the "cash" position, as he is listed at nearly 30 pounds lighter than his predecessor Amani Hooker. I look for Johnson to show off his speed and quickness early in his Iowa career and burst onto the scene this year. I am not going to predict a number of interceptions or pass deflections for Johnson this year, but I him to be toward the top in both categories.

Kaevon Merriweather is an interesting addition to this Iowa defense. Primarily recruited for basketball out of high school, Merriweather emerged late in the recruiting process as a football prospect. Merriweather wasn't even on his high school football team when their season started his senior year. Merriweather will be a work in progress when the Hawks take the field this fall, but the sky is the limit. Earlier in his high school career, Merriweather played some linebacker and defensive end, which I think is promising for an Iowa strong safety. Iowa asks their safeties, particularly the strong safety, to come up and stop the run frequently. At 6'+ and 210 pounds, Merriweather has the build to be a punisher in run defense, and obviously possesses a ton of athleticism and quickness after garnering multiple Division 1 basketball scholarships. I look for Iowa's strong safety to lead the way in tackles again and for Kaevon Merriweather to be a household name by the end of the season.

Kick Returners

Returners - 2018 Statistics:

Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Junior - 24 Kick Returns, 707 Kick Return Yards, 29.5 Yards/Return (4th Nationally)

Devonte Young, Senior - 2 Kick Returns, 42 Kick Return Yards, 21 Yards/Return

Departures - 2018 Statistics:

Kyle Groeneweg - 2 Kick Returns, 54 Kick Return Yards, 27 Yards/Return Additions: None

Outlook at the Position: In one word: OUTSTANDING. Ihmir Smith-Marsette was electric on kickoffs last year, and seemed to grow more and more comfortable as the year wore on. If Iowa is going to score a touchdown on kickoffs, it will be early in the year. I look for Iowa's production in this category to be down this year because I don't think opposing kickers will give Smith-Marsette a chance to do damage later in the year. I wouldn't be surprised if opponents employ pooch kicks and direction kicking frequently to nullify Ihmir Smith-Marsette. I still think Iowa will still score at least once on kickoffs, and Ihmir Smith-Marsette could be one of the most exciting kick returners Iowa has had this decade.

Potential Emerging Contributors: Barring injury, I think Smith-Marsette will handle the lion's share of the kick returning. One name to keep an eye would be Devonte Young. He often served as Smith-Marsette's lead blocker a year ago, and may get more opportunities if teams try to keep the ball out of Smith-Marsette's hands.

Punt Returners

Returners - 2018 Statistics: None

Departures - 2018 Statistics:

Kyle Groeneweg - 24 Punt Returns, 238 Punt Return Yards, 9.9 Yards/Return, 1 Touchdown Additions:

Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Listed as starting punt and kick returner)

Outlook at the Position: Iowa loses their primary punt returner from a year ago in Kyle Groeneweg. Groeneweg was exciting and showed a knack for finding holes in opponent's kick coverage. If Ihmir Smith-Marsette does handle punt returning duties, I think he could be electric and may get more opportunities punt returning than kick returning. It's rare for Kirk Ferentz to use the same guy to handle both kick returns and punt returns, but I think this could be the year when he breaks that trend. Smith-Marsette is exciting in the return game and has the ability to turn a game on its head in an instant, which I think earns him both jobs. I think he will take at least one punt back for a touchdown.

Potential Emerging Contributors: Much like kick returning, I think Ihmir Smith-Marsette is the guy in this scenario. Should Smith-Marsette need a break or if Iowa chooses to avoid having Smith-Marsette double dip in his returning duties, D.J. Johnson, Max Cooper, and Tyrone Tracy Jr. may all be names that get an opportunity.

Next Up: Iowa's 2019 Team Game-by-Game Prediction

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As always, On Iowa! and Go Hawks!

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About Travis

A lifelong Hawkeye fan and a 2017 graduate of the University of Iowa in Civil Engineering, Travis now calls Des Moines, Iowa home and continues to passionately follow University of Iowa athletics

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