POSITIONAL AWARENESS 2020: SAFETY

By RossWB on October 22, 2020 at 3:54 pm
go hawks go
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen, Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC
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Positional Awareness is our annual rundown of the Iowa depth chart, from the position where we are most confident in what Kirk Ferentz intends to do to, well, quarterback.

PREVIOUSLY: 

1. Wide Receiver
2. Running Back
3. Tight End
4. Cornerback
5. Linebacker
6. Quarterback
7. Special Teams
8. Offensive Line

Eligibility Remaining*    
No. Player Year Ht/Wt. Position 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024
13 Henry Marchese JR 6-3/199 Defensive Back          
28 Jack Koerner JR 6-0/205 Free Safety #1          
4 Dane Belton SO 6-1/205 Strong Safety #1/CASH #1          
15 Dallas Craddieth SO 5-11/196 Defensive Back          
26 Kaevon Merriweather SO 6-2/205 Free Safety #2          
21 Thomas Hartlieb FR (RS) 5-11/196 Defensive Back          
29 Sebastian Castro FR (RS) 5-11/197 Strong Safety #2          
30 Quinn Schulte FR (RS) 6-1/197 Defensive Back          
37 Kyler Fisher FR (RS) 5-11/213 Defensive Back          
7 Reggie Bracy FR 6-0/203 Defensive Back          
11 A.J. Lawson FR 6-0/178 Defensive Back          

* These are their current eligibility statuses, but the NCAA's decision to grant a blanket eligibility waiver to fall athletes (even those who compete this year... which is essentially just football players) mean that everyone here would also have a year of eligibility to use next year. We'll have to wait and see how that decision impacts things moving forward. 

THE GREAT DANE

Dane Belton (#4, Sophomore, 6'1", 205 lbs, Jesuit, Tampa, FL)

We're going to see Dane Belton a lot this year, Like, a lot a lot. Belton is listed on the depth chart as the starter at strong safety and the starter in the "cash" role when Iowa goes to a 4-2-5 look on defense. Obviously he can't be in two places at once, but what it says to me is that no matter what look Iowa is in on defense this year, Belton is going to be on the field. If Iowa's in a 4-3, he'll be holding down the back of the secondary at strong safety, alongside Koerner at free safety. And when Iowa's in a 4-2-5 look, he'll slide up into the "cash" role. Iowa's banking on him being the next Amani Hooker for this defense. Those are big shoes to fill -- Hooker was Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year in 2018 and his brilliance and versatility basically created the "cash" position and enabled Iowa to make the 4-2-5 more than just a gimmick or situational defensive look. But Phil Parker started grooming Belton for this role last year; now we get to see if he can flourish in it. 

Belton didn't play in five of Iowa's first six games last year, but he became a fixture once he did enter the lineup. He saw action in eight games total, including four starts (Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, USC). He recorded 18 tackles in those four starts (versus 15 tackles in his four other appearances) and recorded some of his best games against Iowa's toughest opponents (5 tackles, 4 solo against Minnesota; 6 tackles, one tackle for loss against USC in the Holiday Bowl). Just like the defense started clicking when Hooker took over the "cash" role in 2018, the defense found a new gear last year with Belton in that same role. Now we get to see what he can do with an offseason of prep in that role (albeit the weirdest offseason ever). Maintaining his strong form in run support and pass coverage will be key for Belton, but we hope he can also create more "havoc" plays -- interceptions, forced fumbles, tackles for loss. If he can do that, they might need to make some room for another Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Award in the Iowa football offices. 

THE KOERNER MAN

Jack Koerner (#28, Junior, 6'0", 205 lbs, Dowling Catholic, West Des Moines, IA)

The in-state walk-on defensive back who grinds his way into becoming a starter has happened so frequently at Iowa that it's basically become a meme. But it keeps happening for a reason, and it's not that Phil Parker has an irrational love of walk-ons. (I mean, that's not the entire reason, anyway.) It happens because those guys put in the work and earn the coach's trust. That typically means learning the defense inside and out, knowing where to be (and being there), and performing consistently. That approach favors high-floor players a bit over high-ceiling players, but it's also in keeping with Iowa's overall defensive approach under both Norm and Phil Parker: bend don't break and for the love of God, don't concede big plays. Make the offense sustain drives down the field and convert plays consistently. Let them have plays underneath, but don't get beat deep. 

So anyway Koerner is the next man in that role, following the likes of Jake Gervase, Tanner Miller, and Brett Greenwood. Koerner started 11 games last year, all at free safety, and finished second on the Iowa team in tackles, with 81. He also had five pass break-ups, an interception, a forced fumble, and a tackle for loss. Increasing his havoc rate should be a focus for Koerner this year; he's a solid tackler, but Iowa will likely need him to force some more turnovers this fall or create a few more negative plays for the opposing offense. Koerner is entering his second year as a starter and he's going to be one of the leaders for Iowa's secondary; that role comes with added responsibility to do more than just make the plays you're supposed to make. Players like Gervase, Miller, and Greenwood all leveled up as they became juniors and seniors and the game slowed down for them; the hope is that the same happens for Koerner. 

THE NEXT MEN IN

Kaevon Merriweather (#26, Sophomore, 6'2", 205 lbs, Belleville, Belleville, MI)
Sebastian Castro (#29, Freshman (RS), 5'11", 197 lbs, Richards, Oak Lawn, IL)

Merriweather and Castro are the listed back-ups at free safety and strong safety, respectively, on the latest depth chart, so they appear to be next in line for reps at safety behind Belton and Koerner. And one (or both) of them is likely to get reps even without Belton or Koerner needing to leave the field, given Iowa's increased use of a 4-2-5 formation and nickel looks. When Belton slides over to the "cash" role, someone is going to need to step in at safety next to Koerner. Odds are it will be either Merriweather or Castro. 

Merriweather played in nine games as a true freshman in 2018, mainly on special teams, and seemed in line for a big role early in his Iowa tenure. That bore fruit with a starting job against Miami (OH) in the season opener last year. Merriweather's stay in that role was shortlived, though. Injury and some blown coverages (conceding some of the big plays that the Iowa defense hates more than anything) put him on the bench and aside from an appearance against Purdue, the bench is where he stayed for the rest of the 2019 campaign. He ultimately used the redshirt year he didn't use as a true freshman. While Merriweather's first step on the big stage was a rocky one, he has more than enough potential to warrant a little patience. Merriweather didn't rock any boats after his early season demotion and he seemed to emerge as a leader for Iowa during a very trying offseason. If he can translate some of that growth and maturity to his play on the field, it certainly seems likely that Merriweather could claw out a bigger role for himself in Iowa's defense. 

Castro redshirted last season without playing in any games. So we don't yet know how he looks on the field against Big Ten-caliber opponents. Still, the fact that he cracked the two-deeps with so little (none) experience is certainly worthy of attention, as is the fact that he's a guy that's drawn praise from Iowa coaches since he signed with the program. His high school tape showed a player with impressive speed (and great vision, something with could earn him some action as a return man at Iowa) and tackling ability. The coaches appear to see a lot of potential in him and have earmarked him for big things, possibly sooner rather than later. That says to us that Castro is a name to watch in the Iowa secondary; he may only have a minor role in 2020, but big things seem to be on the horizon for young Mr. Castro. 

WHILE YOU WAIT FOR THE OTHERS

Dallas Craddieth (#15, Sophomore, 5'11", 196 lbs, Hazelwood Central, St. Louis, MO)

It seems like Dallas Craddieth has been in Iowa City forever, but he's still just a sophomore. Including this year, he still has three years of eligibility remaining at Iowa (four, really, given the NCAA decision re: eligibility for fall athletes). Which is to say there's still time for him to make an impact. I highlight that because Craddieth's Iowa tenure to date has been very... quiet. He was one of the more buzzed-about defensive backs to land in Iowa City in recent years (rated a 4* prospect by Rivals and ESPN), but that recruiting buzz did not translate to early playing time.

In fact, to date it has translated into almost no playing time. Craddieth redshirted and did not play at all in 2018 and he played in just one game (against Middle Tennessee State) in 2019. That is not the most encouraging sign, obviously. Even defensive backs who aren't on the two-deeps often see time on special teams in coverage units. That said, injuries have played a factor in his inability to get on the field as well. And Craddieth is still the same skilled prospect who impressed at the high school stage, where he laid big hits and showed good coverage skills. The first two years haven't gone as anyone planned, but there's still time for Craddieth to make his mark at Iowa. Hopefully that starts with him earning his way onto the field this season. 

THEY WERE ONLY FRESHMEN

Thomas Hartlieb (#21, Freshman (RS), 5'11", 196 lbs, Edgewood, Madison, WI)
Quinn Schulte (#30, Freshman (RS), 6'1", 197 lbs, Xavier, Cedar Rapids, IA)
Kyler Fisher (#37, Freshman (RS), 5'11", 213 lbs, SE Valley, Farnhamville, IA)
Reggie Bracy (#7, Freshman, 6'0", 203 lbs, St. Paul's Episcopal, Mobile, AL)
A.J. Lawson (#11, Freshman, 6'0", 178 lbs, MacArthur, Decatur, IL)

This is the family portion of the preview. Thomas Hartlieb is the son of former Iowa player Jim Hartlieb (and the nephew of former Iowa players Chuck and John Hartlieb). Quinn Schulte is the brother of current Iowa player Bryce Schulte (though they aren't related to current Iowa player Austin Schulte, though all three are native Iowans). Kyler Fisher is not related to former Iowa defender Cole Fisher. Whew. 

Hartlieb, Schulte, and Fisher are all walk-ons and likely to contribute primarily on special teams in 2020. But walk-ons becoming starters at safety at Iowa is a meme for a reason, so it's certainly not out of the question that any of them turn up in the two-deeps in a year or two. Fisher's size makes him an intriguing option, perhaps for the cash role if his coverage skills are up to snuff. Schulte is a strong all-around athlete who played quarterback in high school and that type of players has often found success at Iowa, especially under Phil Parker's tutelage. Hartlieb also played quarterback in high school (like his father and one of his uncles), but his size precluded that from being a realistic option at this level. Seeing another Hartlieb wearing black and gold and making plays in Kinnick Stadium would certainly bring a smile to more than a few old-timers. 

Bracy and Lawson are both incoming freshmen in what is, of course, probably the weirdest year ever to be a true freshman. We don't even know at this point if they'll end up at safety or cornerback, although Bracy's size does seem to suggest a future safety. Bracy had few offers but was a find of Alabama native Derrick Foster and his prep highlights suggested a strong tackler who takes good angles; we know guys like that can certainly succeed at Iowa. Lawson had a few more offers and his highlights showed good speed and very impressive ball skills; we love a good ball hawk in the Hawkeye secondary. 

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