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Next Man In: Xavier Nwankpa

Next up in our 'Next Man In" series is Xavier Nwankpa, who will take over the safety position left open by Kaevon Merriweather.
Next up in our 'Next Man In" series is Xavier Nwankpa, who will take over the safety position left open by Kaevon Merriweather. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Few football players have come into the Iowa football program with such high expectations as Xavier Nwankpa. The five-star recruit had offers from programs like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame and a plethora of other top-tier college football programs before ultimately choosing to take his talents to Iowa City.

Now, with the departure of Kaevon Merriweather, he's expected to be the next man in at safety. Over the last two seasons in the position, Merriweather accumulated 89 tackles, two TFL, eleven pass break-ups, and four interceptions. He also earned All-America and All-Big Ten honors after the 2022 season.

Even with his illustrious prep career and a solid start to his career as a Hawkeye last season, Nwankpa still has some big shoes to fill.


During the regular season of his freshman year, Nwankpa posted four tackles and a pass break-up, while seeing time on special teams and a few limited snaps on defense.

Nwankpa made his first career start in the Music City Bowl, against Kentucky. He produced a spectacular performance, registering eight tackles, a pass break-up, and an interception he returned for a touchdown.

"That was pretty big," Nwankpa said following spring practice on Thursday. "First start, first pick, first pick-six. That really got things going, and I'm going to try to keep the momentum going off that."

Several things stick out to the 6'3", 210-pound safety when it comes to why he feels so much more comfortable going into this season.

"I learned a lot from Kaevon when he was here," Nwankpa said. "It started in the film room. He taught me how to watch film, and I didn't really do that in high school. On the field, going through progressions and stuff -- he helped with that and made it a lot easier."

The added hours spent on the field during spring practice have added to his building confidence.

"I kind of see things the same," he said. "But I pick up keys faster. Everything I need to see like run/pass reads, it's much faster than when I first got here. All of that is helping me improve my speed in the game. I'm learning to be in the right spots. If the running backs do a certain thing or the tackles do something, my ability to read and react has gotten a lot better."

Nwankpa mid-interview at Iowa's Thursday spring practice.
Nwankpa mid-interview at Iowa's Thursday spring practice. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Similar to the faith the rest of the defense has in new Mike linebacker Jay Higgins, Nwankpa's teammates expect a lot out of him this season.

"Last year, Xavier stepped up in the bowl game," safety Quinn Schulte said. "This spring he's getting a lot more reps."

"He practiced well last year," added cornerback Jermari Harris. "Throughout the year he grew tremendously, and he's still continuing to grow through spring. I'm looking forward to seeing what he's got going on in summer camp, fall camp and ultimately the season."

"You can just tell out here in practice that the game is starting to slow down for him," Cooper Dejean noted. "He's seeing things better, he's reacting quicker to different deep balls and seeing things that come over the middle. He's gotten a lot better since he first got here, and that experience in the bowl game helped him a lot. I'm excited to see what he does this year."