IOWA CITY — As part of a secondary filled with moving pieces this season, Jake Gervase is thankful for the second chance.
The Iowa junior from Davenport Assumption is growing into his role at free safety, part of a collection of Hawkeyes who have started in the defensive backfield that will grow to eight when freshman Matt Hankins debuts as a starting cornerback in Friday’s 3 p.m. game at Nebraska.
“We’ve had a lot of moving pieces, but I feel like that has brought us all closer together,’’ Gervase said. “We’re here for each other, doing what we can to make it work.’’
Accomplishing that has been accompanied by a few lessons along the way.
Gervase opened the season as Iowa’s starting free safety, a role he moved into after Brandon Snyder suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament last spring.
He was replaced by Amani Hooker midway through the Hawkeyes’ third game of the season, sitting out totally first, regrouping and then contributing on special teams before returning to the lineup following Iowa’s bye week in mid-October.
Gervase has produced since.
Only Iowa’s three starting linebackers have more than the 45 tackles Gervase has collected through 11 games. He shares second on the team with two interceptions and is third on the team with six pass break-ups.
“I’m doing what I can to do my job and make the plays that need to be made,’’ Gervase said. “When you play in the secondary, you aren’t going to be perfect. That’s the tough thing about it, but that’s the reality of it.’’
That puts a premium on strength that is as much mental as it is physical.
“You learn from your experiences and while nobody wants to give up a tough play, any mistakes you make can help you become a better player if you learn from them,’’ Gervase said.
Gervase understands that now more than ever.
The opening weeks of the season proved to be a challenge.
“It’s was tough, going from being on the field to being in a position where my only job was to be a good teammate. There were some tough days, but I never gave up on myself,’’ Gervase said.
“I kept working. I got back on special teams, tried to contribute there, and now that I’m back in the lineup I’m trying to make the most of every snap. I don’t take it for granted. I have to earn it all over again every day and that’s the motivation right now.’’
Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson, the only player in the secondary to start every game for Iowa this season, believes Gervase and Miles Taylor at strong safety have made strides.
“Our communication gets better by the week and they’re helping us compete,’’ Jackson said. “Jake and Miles, they’re working hard to get better just like the rest of us.’’
Gervase said Iowa’s defensive backs have become a tight group, bonded by the ever-changing lineup and a desire to deliver.
“Our standards are pretty high and I feel like we’re working well together,’’ he said. “We’re pushing each other to be at our best every game. That’s the goal, to be strong on the back end and help lead our defense.’’
The Hawkeyes expect another challenge on Friday.
Laboring to move the ball on the ground, Nebraska has ridden the arm of quarterback Tanner Lee and a talented group of receivers in the Big Ten’s third-most productive passing attack.
The Cornhuskers average 284.5 yards per game through the air with JD Spielman, Stanley Morgan and De’Mornay Pierson-El combining for 151 catches this season.
“They have some good playmakers and it will be another test for us,’’ Gervase said. “They like to put the ball in the air and they mix things up pretty well in the passing game so we’ll need to be ready.’’
That has been the Hawkeyes’ primary objective this week, preparing to move forward following losses the past two weeks to Wisconsin and Purdue.
That’s something Gervase can relate to, pushing ahead with everything that has come his way this season.
“There are times when things are tough, times when it doesn’t play out the way you hope, but you keep working, keep growing and when you do, things work out,’’ Gervase said. “I see that now and I feel like I’m a better player and person because of what I’ve had to deal with this season.’’