Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series ranking the top 10 Iowa football players at each position on offense and defense. Up next, kicker.
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – This started as fun trying to rank the top 10 defensive backs in the history of the Iowa football program, but then it quickly turned into a maddening experience.
Ranking the top 20 Iowa defensive backs would’ve been difficult, and believe me, I considered doing it before deciding to stick to 10.
This is the eighth in a series ranking the top 10 Iowa players at each position, and defensive back was by far the most difficult of any position to rank.
It felt helpless at times trying to trim the list to just 10.
I was stuck on 14 for nearly two days because I couldn’t bring myself to eliminate four from the field.
Picking between two of the biggest legends in Hawkeye sports for the top spot was also extremely difficult as I kept going back and forth.
But as promised, after hours of agonizing over who should or shouldn’t make the top 10, here are my top 10 Iowa defensive backs of all time.
And as I’ve been saying throughout this series, the rankings are based solely on what the players accomplished as a Hawkeye.
That will help to explain why two of the greatest NFL defensive backs of all time didn’t make the top 10.
10. Tyler Sash, 2008-10 – The 10th spot came down to Sash, Earl Douthitt, Paul Krause, Devon Mitchell and Emlen Tunnell.
Sash was given the nod as the only one of the five to have twice made first-team All-Big Ten. The Oskaloosa native earned that distinction as a sophomore in 2009 and as a junior in 2010.
Krause and Tunnell would both go on to become star defensive backs in the NFL and they still rank first and second, respectively, with 81 and 79 career interceptions. But neither made first-team All-Big Ten at Iowa. Krause made second-team All-Big Ten in 1963, while Tunnell didn’t make first- or second-team All-Big Ten.
Tunnell also played just two seasons at Iowa in 1946 and 1947.
Sash, on the other hand, finished his three-year career with 13 interceptions and with 392 return yards on those interceptions, which is a program record and fifth all-time in Big Ten history.
He passed on a chance to add to his Hawkeye legacy by skipping his senior season to enter the 2011 NFL draft where he was selected by the New York Giants in the sixth round.
He would go on to win a Super Bowl with the Giants.
However, on Sept. 8, 2015, Sash was found dead at his home in Oskaloosa at the age of 27. The autopsy report concluded that his death was caused by a mixture of drugs.
On January 26, 2016, five months after his death, Sash’s family released the results of testing performed on his brain, confirming that he was suffering from stage 2 (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by head injuries, at the time of his death.
9. Micah Hyde, 2009-12 – The Ohio native was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year in 2012 despite playing for a team that finished 4-8 overall.
He was the only Hawkeye to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012, and he made second-team all-conference as a junior in 2011.
He finished his Hawkeye career with 240 tackles and with eight interceptions.
8. Amani Hooker, 2016-18 – The Minnesota native was named second-team All-America by the Associated Press as a junior strong safety in 2018.
He was also named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year as a junior and shared team MVP honors with tight end T.J. Hockenson.
Hooker was one of the first defensive backs at Iowa to play the new cash position, which combines both defensive back and linebacker responsibilities. He helped set a standard for how the position should be played in 2018.
7. Merton Hanks, 1987-90 – The Dallas, Texas native was taller than most cornerbacks and he played with high energy and with high emotion.
He was named first-team All-America by at least one news outlet as a senior in 1990, and he made first-team All-Big Ten as a senior and second-team as a junior.
He also finished his career with 10 interceptions, which is tied for 11th in program history.
Hanks was one of the key players for Iowa’s 1990 Big Ten champion team, and he made a significant contribution in each of his four seasons as a Hawkeye.
He would go on to play for nine seasons in the NFL and was a starter for the San Francisco 49ers’ 1994 Super Bowl champion team.
6. Jovon Johnson, 2002-05 – One of two Erie, Pennsylvania natives to make the top 10, he finished his career with 17 interceptions to rank second on Iowa’s all-time list.
He either led or tied for the team lead in interceptions in each of his four seasons as a Hawkeye.
He also made first-team All-Big Ten as a senior in 2005.
5. Craig Clemons, 1969-71 – The Ohio native never played on a winning team at Iowa, but that didn’t stop him from being named first-team All-America by at least three news outlets as a senior in 1971.
He also made first-team All-Big Ten as a senior and second-team as junior in 1970.
Much like how Bob Sanders played three decades later, Clemons was known for being tough and violent on the field. He was a sure tackler, but also played well in space as he led Iowa in interceptions as a junior and senior.
He would go on to be selected in the first round of the 1972 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears, and with the 12th pick overall. He played for the Bears for six seasons, although, his NFL success had no impact on his ranking.
4. Josh Jackson, 2014-17 – The Texas native doesn’t have the body of work compared to some on this list, but he earned the fourth spot from being a unanimous consensus All-American in 2017. He was the seventh Hawkeye to earn consensus All-America honors as a junior.
He tied Iowa’s single-season record and led the nation with eight interceptions as a junior in 2017, including scoring both of Iowa’s touchdowns on two pick sixes in a 38-14 loss at Wisconsin.
He also led the nation with 18 passes defended in 2017 and ranked fourth nationally in pass break-ups with 18.
He and Desmond King are the only Iowa defensive backs to earn consensus All-America honors.
3. Desmond King, 2013-16 – Speaking of Desmond King, the Detroit native became just the sixth Hawkeye to earn consensus All-America honors as a junior in 2015.
He also won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back as a junior and was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year that same season.
He tied the school-record with eight interceptions as a junior for an Iowa team that finished 12-0 in the 2015 regular season, and he finished his career with 14 interceptions.
He also earned second-team All-America honors as a senior by as many as five media outlets, and he made first-team All-Big Ten as a junior and senior.
2. Nile Kinnick, 1937-39 – Iowa played a total of 24 games in his three seasons as a Hawkeye, and yet, he still finished his career with 18 interceptions.
That is tied for first in program history with Devon Mitchell, who played in over 40 games as a Hawkeye.
That isn’t meant to minimize what Mitchell accomplished as a Hawkeye, but rather to show just how incredible Kinnick was on defense.
He still has the distinction of being Iowa’s only Heisman Trophy winner, earning the award in 1939 thanks to his versatility and all-around play.
He participated in 107 of his team’s 130 points on offense, including 11 drop kicks in 1939, and he led the nation with eight interceptions.
- Bob Sanders, 2000-03 – Before you accuse me of blasphemy for ranking somebody ahead of Nile Kinnick, first consider that Kinnick was ranked No. 1 at running back in this series, and then also remember just how impactful Bob Sanders was as a Hawkeye.
Kirk Ferentz said Sanders changed the culture more than any other player that he’s coached at Iowa, and former teammates have said the same thing about the Erie, Pennsylvania native.
Sanders only stood about 5-foot-8, but he was wrapped in muscles and he played with a level of physicality that is rarely seen, even for Big Ten football.
Sanders wasn’t a dirty player, but he played through the whistle and wasn’t afraid to sacrifice his body. He attacked the ball carrier much like a heat-seeking missile and his bone-crunching tackles made you almost feel sorry for his opponents.
His style probably wouldn’t work in today’s game, but it helped to make him a legend two decades ago.
Sanders made first-team All-Big Ten three times and was named second-team All-America by the Associated Press as a senior in 2003.
Individual awards hardly do him justice, however, because part of what Sanders did as a Hawkeye can’t be measured by trophies and statistics.
He helped lay the foundation under Kirk Ferentz, and he showed that greatness doesn’t always come with a bunch of recruiting stars next to your name.
Sanders only had two scholarship offers coming out of high school from Iowa and Ohio, but he left Iowa as arguably the greatest defensive back in program history, and without question as the most influential player under Kirk Ferentz.
Also considered: Paul Krause, Emlen Tunnell, Earl Douthitt, Devon Mitchell, Mike Stoops, Bob Stoops, Jay Norvell, Steve Wilson, Riley Moss, Kerry Burt, Damien Robinson, Dane Belton, Shaun Prater, Willis Glassgow, Lou King, Amari Spievey, Brett Greenwood, Carlos James, B.J. Lowery, Tom Knight.