By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kirk Ferentz likes to call them stories, and they’re stories that never get old because they inspire and because they change with each football season.
This column is about two of the newest stories on the Iowa football team, which faces Rutgers in the Big Ten opener on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
It’s about a young man from the Detroit area, who up until about late December in his senior of year of high school thought that basketball would be his path to college; and it’s about a young man from tiny Coggon, who thought that he was good enough to play college football at the highest level despite having few believers outside of his inner circle and despite having no scholarship offers from any college.
Sophomore defensive back Kaevon Merriweather and sophomore offensive guard Kyler Schott are proof that almost anything is possible if you believe in yourself, have talent, are given an opportunity and are willing to work hard.
They both are expected to start in Saturday’s game against Rutgers, and that by itself is impressive, considering they're only sophomores, including a true sophomore in the case of Merriweather, who made his first career start in this past Saturday's 38-14 victory over Miami of Ohio in the season opener at Kinnick Stadium.
Schott also played extensively for the first time this past Saturday after starting left tackle Alaric Jackson suffered a knee injury in the first quarter and didn't return. Schott was inserted at right guard and helped pave the way for 213 rushing yards.
In less than two years, Merriweather has gone from playing football just for fun as a high school senior to now being the starter at free safety for the 1-0 Hawkeyes.
And to think, it almost didn’t happen.
If not for a conversation with his mother in late December of his senior year in high school, Merriweather could be playing college basketball right now instead of free safety for the Hawkeyes.
“Up until the end of December my senior year when (football) coaches started coming and calling me, my mom sat down and we had a talk and were like, maybe we need to readjust your thinking, maybe we need to kind of start thinking you do need to go to school to play football,” Merriweather said on Tuesday. “Even during football season I was still going to basketball camps and going on basketball visits and going to see schools. But I was still also playing football.
“My coach didn’t even tell me that schools were coming in (for football) and talking about me until like December. So I never really even knew that schools were even looking at me (for football).”
Iowa entered the picture for football in December of Merriweather’s senior year, which is late in the recruiting process, but late was better than never in Merriweather’s case.
He loved playing basketball and had some scholarship offers in that sport, but Merriweather couldn’t turn down a chance to play football for a Big Ten school, and to play for Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who also coaches the defensive backs and was a former all-Big Ten safety at Michigan State in the 1980s.
Merriweather’s high school football coach, Jermain Crowell, also sort of pushed Merriweather towards Iowa because according to Merriweather, Crowell felt it was the best environment in which to excel.
“He kind of felt like it was a good place for me to learn to be a football player, especially under coach Parker, who knows so much, being a great football player himself at Michigan State,” Merriweather said. “He has so much to offer to somebody. He told me this is the best place for me to develop as a football player, and it was.”
Reese Morgan strikes again
As for Schott’s path to Iowa, it was filled with obstacles due mostly to college football coaches being concerned about his lack of height.
But there was one college coach who believed in the 6-foot-2, 290-pound Schott, and that was former Iowa assistant Reese Morgan, who spent 19 seasons as a member of Kirk Ferentz’s staff before retiring shortly after last season.
“Honestly, I never even got like a phone call,” Schott said of his recruitment. “I talked to Upper Iowa once and then they never talked to me again.
“But coach Morgan seem to really like me and kept sending me letters. I loved it and I decided to walk-on here.”
Morgan had knack for finding talent where other coaches didn’t see it or didn’t bother to look.
“Reese kind of has a pulse on things, and said Kyler was one of the guys we should look at,” Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday.
Schott struggled with knee problems throughout high school, but is healthy now and basking in the spotlight.
Ever since he arrived on the Iowa campus, Schott has acted as if he belonged, on and off the field. No moment or challenge has been too big for him.
“It's kind of how he's been since he's gotten here,” Ferentz said. “He was on the scout team initially, like most first-year guys and young guys, and he just kind of fits in, gets along well with his teammates, and he works hard.
“The biggest thing he's given himself, he's worked hard and his body is a little bit more better able to stand up now to competing against good players. He's done that all camp long, so it's great to see.”
What Schott hasn’t done is get a haircut for quite some time, much to the dismay of his teammates.
“His hair is nasty, it gets in mouth sometimes when we’re going against each other,” said sophomore defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon. “I don’t like it. I feel like he should cut his hair just a little bit, you know, trim it up around the edges.”
Schott has been given two nicknames since becoming a Hawkeye, including “Jack Black” due to his supposed resemblance to the actor, comedian and part-time musician.
His other nickname is “Shooter,” which came from Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek mispronouncing his last name when Schott arrived on campus.
“Shooter came round because coach Polasek, the line coach, my first week when I got here thought my last name was (pronounced) shoot instead of shot,” Schott said. “So he just started calling me “Shooter” and it stuck, and now everyone calls me that.”
Schott told reporters on Tuesday that he prefers “Shooter” over “Jack Black.”
“If I had to choose one, probably, Shooter,” Schott said. “I think I’m a little better looking than Jack Black.
“Jack Black came around because when I first got here I had shorter hair and I shaved my beard and came into camp early. So I didn’t have time to grow it back out my freshman year, so I looked more like Jack Black.”
Schott might be short for a college offensive lineman, but he compensates with enormous strength and a non-stop motor that also made him an accomplished wrestler in high school.
Just ask Nixon, who competes against Schott in practice on a daily basis.
“We’ve been going against each for a while, so we would like literally battle it out every day in pass rush, every day in team (drills),” Nixon said. “And it’s a lot of fun going against him, and he has powerful hands. So once he gets on you, there’s no getting him off until the whistle blows.
“That helps me a lot playing against other teams now. When teams get their hands on me, it’s easier to get them off knowing that I’ve had Shooter’s hands on me before and I got them off.”
From dunker to tackler
Merriweather, meanwhile, does his thing in space as the starting free safety.
The same talent that made him a rim-rattling dunker in basketball also helps him immensely as a defensive back.
“He’s a really good basketball player, but he’s put that away now,” said Iowa senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia. “He’s a late bloomer (in football), but he’s really smart and he adjusts really fast. He’s picked up the defense in about a year.
“And being a free safety this young is not easy at all.”
Merriweather’s rapid ascent up the depth chart is yet another example of Phil Parker’s ability to find, identify and develop talent.
Parker recruits Michigan and saw something special in the 6-0, 210-pound Merriweather, who Belleville, Mich.
“That's Phil's area geographically to recruit, and he does a good job of researching and finding players he thinks would fit with what we do and the way we do things,” Kirk Ferentz said. “And then Kaevon came on — I think when I went out there it was January, so I think we had already made the decision that we were full speed ahead on him.
“You look at his football tape, there wasn't as much evidence maybe as you watch him on the basketball court, on a good team, a really good basketball team. We felt like he was a sharp guy that was a good athlete that showed enough aggression and physical-ness on the field, and then just a matter of like are you willing to make that transition and work hard and learn how to play the game.”
A special bond
One of the neatest things about a college football team is that the players come from all different kinds of backgrounds and they look and act differently.
Merriweather and Schott couldn’t be any different in that respect, but they also share an incredibly strong bond as Iowa football players. They’re now part of a new family that consists of teammates, coaches and support staff who are all working and striving for the same goals.
They both had their breakout moment in the victory over Miami of Ohio in the season opener this past Saturday, and now look forward to the next challenge.
“I’m not where I need to be at all," Merriweather said. "I think as the season continues and as week by week goes, I think a lot more about just the game of football and understanding how to watch film better and everything.”
Jackson is expected to miss at least two games based on what Ferentz' said Tuesday, meaning this is Schott’s chance to shine and to enjoy the trimmings that go with playing for the Hawkeyes.
This past Saturday’s game barely was over when Schott got a phone call from his high school strength coach and his high school football coach.
“It was after the game and they were all super proud of me and telling me how proud they were," Schott said. "So that was really nice to hear.”
Merriweather said his mother shot video of every play when he was on the field this past Saturday.
“My mom was excited,” Merriweather said. “She pretty much recorded every single play that I as in on the game. She sent me every single video after the game.
“It was pretty cool, pretty exciting.”
Unlike Merriweather, who is on scholarship, Schott is paying his own way to school as a walk-on, at least for now. He is the latest in a long line of walk-ons who have excelled under Ferentz.
“They don’t treat us any differently," Schott said of the Iowa coaches. "We get fed the same. We get coached the same. So I knew if I was tough enough I could do it here.”