IOWA CITY, Iowa - Kaevon Merriweather and Jack Koerner were in a head-to-head battle to see who would start at free safety during fall camp in 2019.
“We knew it was between us, competing every day,” Koerner said.
Merriweather, a redshirt freshman, got the nod for the season opener against Miami of Ohio. But things didn’t go as planned. He injured his right foot and Koerner, a sophomore walk-on, replaced him.
And from that day forward, two careers took different paths. Koerner started at free safety the remainder of the season, and won the “Next Man In” award in 2019. Now on scholarship, he’s started 19 of the last 20 games at free safety.
Merriweather missed 11 of the last 12 games in 2019 because of his injury, and it was a trying time for him.
“Starting your very first game, and thinking you’re going to play the entire season, then getting hurt and not playing pretty much the rest of the season, that’s hard on you mentally,” Kaevon said. “I talked to my mom (LaTanya Franklin) pretty much every day. She said, “Keep going, keep going.”"
Keep going, he did. Merriweather has switched positions, starting five games last season at strong safety. He was No. 1 at that spot heading into fall camp.
“A lot of people tuck their tail between their legs and they want to feel sorry for themselves,” Koerner said. “But you’ve got to give him some respect for staying the course. And he’s improved exponentially from where he was that first game against Miami of Ohio. He’s twice the player he was then. He’s answered the bell by learning the defense even more. He placed some added emphasis on things he needed to improve. And he’s made our defense better as a whole.”
Phil Parker, Iowa’s defensive coordinator and a member of the Iowa staff since Kirk Ferentz took over in 1999, has seen careers go different directions in the face of adversity.
“He’s just a positive kid in general,” Parker said of Merriweather. He’s a good locker room guy. He got banged up a little bit and just moved on.”
Merriweather’s situation reminds Parker of Jordan Lomax. He opened the 2013 season against Northern Illinois as a starting cornerback. He injured a hamstring that game and was replaced by freshman Desmond King.
King, like Koerner, made the most of his opportunity and locked down the starting position for the rest of his career. King went on to become an all-American and won the Jim Thorpe as the nation’s top defensive back in 2015.
Lomax, a sophomore in 2013, was moved to safety and started there his final two seasons, earning third-team all-Big Ten honors as a senior.
“It’s still a team game,” Parker said. “Everyone understands we need everybody. Something could happen to any one of those guys and they’ve got to step in and play at a high level.”
Parker likes Merriweather’s versatility, and said he could play either safety position or the Cash spot if needed.
“I consider him a starter, just what he’s been doing and how much time he’s already played in our different packages,” Parker said.
Merriweather’s favorite position?
“I just like being on the field,” he said.
When he looks back on the unexpected climb he had to make to return to the field after his injury, with a position change thrown in, determination helped Merriweather get there.
“I did everything I could throughout that offseason and in (2020) fall camp to put myself in a position to actually get back on the field and back to where I was at,” Merriweather said.
That included learning both safety positions. He credited former Hawkeyes Amani Hooker and Jake Gervase for helping him learn the ropes.
‘“I basically have knowledge from playing both safety positions, and I’ve played Cash from time to time as well,” Merriweather said, “So just knowing and understanding the entire defense as a whole puts me in a position where they can put me in areas of the field where they need me.”
Football wasn’t Merriweather’s first love. He is a skilled basketball player who had a Division I scholarship offer from Western Michigan. He didn’t take up football until his junior season at Belleville High School in Belleville, Mich.
“I don’t think I’m really behind, because I’ve put so much detail and effort into learning the game, especially with Coach Parker,” Merriweather said. “And just being around guys that performed before me, like Amani, Jake, Geno (Stone) and Miles (Taylor), helped. They pushed me forward.”
Merriweather sees some flip-flop similarities between bringing the basketball down the floor on a fast break and playing in the secondary on a football field.
“In basketball, coming down the court with the ball in your hands, you’ve got to read the defenses and see what’s going on,” Merriweather said. “Playing defensive back, you’re doing the same thing. You read the offense, see what the down and distance is and what formation they’re in. What is their personnel? How many running backs are in the game, how many tight ends, what receiving threats do they have? The mental knowledge of the game, that doesn’t change.”
On a football field, playing with instinct is the ultimate goal. It’s the result of knowledge and experience. Merriweather is getting closer to the final product.
“I’m not all the way there, but I see myself getting a lot better,” he said. “I know I can improve on everything I do...in my technique, the way I see things. I have a ways to go, but I think in some situations I do react on instinct, just based on how much football experience I have the past three or four years.”
Every March, when college basketball rolls into the NCAA Tournament, Merriweather thinks about his past.
“I definitely get the itch,” he said. “It makes me wonder what might have been. But I really do love football.These running backs are pretty big, and they like to put a little lick on you. I think that’s the best part, the physicality. That’s what I really like about football.”