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Hawkeye secondary has more answers than questions

Hawkeye secondary has more answers than questions

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Iowa cornerback Matt Hankins (8) celebrates with Riley Moss (33) after a stop during the Hawkeyes' victory over Wisconsin last season at Kinnick Stadium.

In the 22 seasons Phil Parker has coached the secondary in the Iowa football program, he has gotten used to answering questions.

Nearly every spring, Parker searches for an answer or two to fill a void at a cornerback position or one of the two safety positions.

Not this year.

The question the Hawkeye defensive coordinator and secondary coach seeks an answer to is how to blend together so much experience.

Iowa’s defensive backfield is among the most experienced position groups in the program and the return of Matt Hankins as a likely rare fifth-year starter and the addition of graduate transfer Xavior Williams only adds to the group of talent.

“We’re going to have a lot of flexibility,’’ Parker said Wednesday. “I’m very pleased with where we’re at right now.’’

Completing the fifth of its 15 spring practices Thursday, Iowa returns starting experience at every position on the back end of its defense from last season’s 6-2 team.

Hankins solidified that in January when he opted to return for a fifth year of competition, choosing to use the additional year of eligibility given by the NCAA to any player who wanted it to further develop his skills.

He will look to add to his collection of 28 career starts and will be counted on to help develop the next generation of Hawkeye secondary standouts.

“Coach Parker wants me to be a senior leader, be sort of a player-coach out there and help the younger guys,’’ Hankins said. “I’m back because there are ways for me to get better. I need to be more physical with receivers. I have things to work on, too.’’

Parker welcomed Hankins’ decision.

“When Matt decided to stay, I was thrilled about that,’’ Parker said. “He gives us experience and leadership back there. He’s a very intelligent player.’’

Safety Kaevon Merriweather said Hankins “pretty much knows what’s going on before the play even starts. He sees the stances of receivers and he will tell me things sometimes before the snap.’’

Williams brings a similar level of experience, joining the Hawkeyes after earning All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honors the past two seasons at Northern Iowa.

He announced his plans to transfer to Iowa around the same time Hankins reached his decision.

“He’s coming into the program at a good point,’’ Parker said. “He has to understand a little bit what our terminology is, our scheme. He’s well put together, good footwork and a smart kid. Very excited. He has one degree, working on another.’’

Williams played both cornerback and safety at UNI, but Parker said he is currently working as a cornerback with the Hawkeyes.

Iowa safety Jack Koerner welcomes Williams to the crowded competition.

“He has a great football mind and tons of experience,’’ Koerner said. “We couldn’t be more excited for him to help our team wherever he fits in. Whatever vision coach Parker has for him, we’re all going to buy into that and we’re excited to add even more experience.’’

With cornerback Riley Moss, safeties Koerner and Merriweather and hybrid cash/safety Dane Belton returning as well, there is no shortage of high-level performers on the practice field.

“The competition is great, especially when we go on team period and we go against the offense’’ Moss said. “It gets chippy later in spring ball because you’ve been around the guys so much, so it will definitely breed a lot of growth which is what you want.’’

That positions Iowa defensive backs to embrace lofty expectations as part of a defense that led the nation in 2020 in allowing opponents just 4.3 yards per play and has picked off 64 passes since the start of the 2017 season.

“You can fall back and stop doing what you’re doing, or you can just improve,’’ Hankins said. “You can only get better if you work to do that.’’

Merriweather counts on that.

“I think we’re all on the same page and connected with one another, seeing the same things, and that can be a huge boost for our defense,’’ Merriweather said.

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