IOWA CITY, Iowa — In Kirk Ferentz’s 20 recruiting classes at Iowa, only one other time did he bring in more Rivals 4-star defensive backs than in the upcoming 2018 class.
That year was 2007, when Jordan Bernstine, Diaunte Morrow and Cedric Everson all came to Iowa City. None of the three lived up to their ranking, and Bernstine was the only one to finish his eligibility.
This time, it should be different.
Safety Dallas Craddieth and defensive back Julius Brents both earned 4-star status by Rivals. Cornerback D.J. Johnson was a 3-star recruit who picked Iowa over Notre Dame and spurned late overtures from LSU and Ohio State. The Hawkeyes also picked up two unheralded defensive backs in Kaevon Merriweather and Terry Roberts.
It’s likely this class forms the foundation for the secondary’s future. Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker said at least two incoming D-backs could see action this fall. All of them have their attributes.
Parker is partly responsible for Iowa’s talent infusion. Since 2009, Parker has coached a first-team All-Big Ten cornerback every year but one. Micah Hyde, originally a 2-star product, won the Big Ten’s defensive back of the year award in 2012 and now is a Pro Bowl safety in Buffalo. Desmond King won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2015 as the nation’s best defensive back.
Last fall, Josh Jackson was a Thorpe finalist. King and Jackson tied the single-season record with 8 interceptions and were unanimous first-team All-Americans. Like Hyde, Jackson also was a 2-star recruit, while King de-committed from a MAC school to pick Iowa shortly before the 2013 signing day.
|Dallas Craddieth||Hazelwood Central (Mo.)||S||6-0||197||4|
|Julius Brents||Warren Central (Ind.)||CB/S||6-2||180||4|
|D.J. Johnson||North Central (Ind.)||CB||6-0||170||3|
|Terry Roberts||Erie (Pa.) Cathedral||CB||5-10||171||3|
|Kaevon Merriweather||Belleville (Mich.)||DB/OLB||6-2||195||2|
Parker’s success in churning out high-caliber defensive backs caught the new players’ attention.
“I feel like I’ve been an underdog my whole life, and I feel like they are underdogs in the Big Ten,” Johnson said. “They always compete with whoever. The way they develop players and what I already have and what they can give to me, I feel like I could blow up there, definitely.”
When it came to recruiting Johnson and Brents, some of it was luck. Iowa decided to mobilize in Indianapolis after its 12-win campaign in 2015. It helped recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell’s pitch to defensive backs the last few years with King and Jackson’s accolades.
“You think about Julius Brents; you think about D.J. Johnson. Both really good defensive backs,” Bell said. “When I started, the ’15 season rolls into the ’16 season, I’m coming off the road fresh off a Thorpe Award winner. So I can talk to these guys about that. In ’17, we have a Thorpe finalist. So that resonates with these guys. It was the perfect storm.
“You tell them the story. ‘There’s been one DB coach here for 20 years. This is how he does it. These are the guys he’s produced and one coach for 20 years. Here are the things you can count on here at Iowa.'”
That same pitch applied to Craddieth in the St. Louis area. Craddieth had plenty of options, and he could have waited for the traditional signing date. But something inside told him to commit and sign with Iowa early, which he did in December. Parker’s prowess in developing defensive backs helped him make his decision.
“I feel like I could just really succeed and get done with what I want to get done there at Iowa, and hopefully the coaches can develop me enough to where I can make it to the NFL someday,” Craddieth said.
Roberts originally was a 2-star recruit from renowned Erie (Pa.) Cathedral Prep before committing to Iowa and picking up a third star. He played both ways to help Cathedral Prep win its second consecutive state title. As a senior, Roberts grabbed 5 interceptions, set the school’s receiving yardage record with 1,237 yards on 42 catches and totaled 16 touchdowns.
In a playoff game last fall, Roberts caught 5 passes for 161 yards and scored on touchdown receptions of 66 and 32 yards. He also intercepted 2 passes.
“He killed it statistically this year on both sides of the ball,” Ferentz said. “He really did a good job. We saw him out in camp and really liked what we saw.”
Merriweather is more of a project with position flexibility. He was more focused on basketball throughout his high school career in Belleville, Mich., but has enough athletic skills to translate to football.
“He’s a guy that we had a lot of strong feelings for,” Ferentz said. “And quite frankly, he’s probably a better prospect on the basketball court than the football field, but we feel he can do both. Just an impressive young man.”
Of Iowa’s top four returning safeties, two are in their final year of eligibility and another is a junior. At cornerback, Iowa returns three players with starting experience but nobody has enough equity to automatically open games. With these highly rated incoming players, it’s possible two or more could crack the depth chart this fall.