IOWA CITY — Kaevon Merriweather walked out of Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night with a full understanding of the shoes he’s trying to fill.
"This isn’t an easy job, but I’m going to get better and I’m going to get it down," Merriweather said, reflecting on his first start as Iowa’s free safety.
The sophomore has moved into the lineup spot Jake Gervase played a year ago, and his debut was lesson filled.
He owned the mistakes, taking responsibility for every big gain Miami (Ohio) had during the Hawkeyes’ 38-14 season-opening victory, and he expects more of himself and his teammates in this Saturday’s 11 a.m. Big Ten opener against Rutgers.
"It’s about improvement now, learning from what went wrong last week and not making the same mistakes again," Merriweather said.
"There were jitters in the first half, some nerves I haven’t felt in a long time, but I did what I could to settle myself and everybody down and just play the game."
Merriweather’s journey to the Iowa secondary began on a basketball court.
Football was an afterthought until Merriweather’s junior year of high school in suburban Detroit.
"I had pretty much given up on football, and basketball was my passion after eighth grade," he said.
A coach convinced him to give football another try during his junior year of high school, and that rekindled his desire to play the game.
"I saw the possibilities that the coaches saw in me but it really wasn’t until my senior year that I even thought about playing football in college," Merriweather said. "My coaches (at Belleville High School in Michigan) felt I had a chance to do some things and after talking with the coaches here, I became convinced."
That took some time. He was still visiting schools as a basketball recruit late into his senior football season.
"But the chance to play football in the Big Ten, I couldn’t turn that down," he said.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said defensive coordinator Phil Parker convinced him that Merriweather was a good fit for the Hawkeye program.
"We felt like he was a sharp guy that was a good athlete who showed enough aggression and physical ability on the field," Ferentz said. "It came down to if he was willing to make that transition and work hard to learn how to play the game."
Merriweather saw action in a reserve role as a true freshman in nine games last season for the Hawkeyes but gained as much working with Gervase, who is now on the practice squad with the Los Angeles Rams.
"Jake taught me so much, especially how to watch film and how to break all of that down," Merriweather said. "Since the first day I got here, I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can. From Amani (Hooker), from Jake, I’ve been just trying to pick something up every single day."
Merriweather said some early-game miscommunication helped the RedHawks stay within a 10-7 score at halftime, giving Miami freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert a chance to connect on seven of his first nine passes and collect four passes of 20 or more yards against the Hawkeye defense.
"That’s on me. I have to do a better job communicating and getting everybody in the right spots at the right time," he said.
Merriweather said adjustments Iowa made at the half seemed to help the Hawkeyes slow the Miami offense, which limited Gabbert to 8-of-15 passing over the final two quarters after he hit 9-of-12 attempts in the first half.
"Things got better as the game went on, and I have to keep working to make sure that things get even better yet," Merriweather said.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz counts on that.
"You want to make your opponent work a little bit if you’re playing defense," Ferentz said. "We gave up a couple easy plays that aren’t going to be good for us if we keep doing that."
Merriweather said he learned from what transpired.
He worked to raise the volume of his calls on the back end of the Hawkeye defense during the second half.
He was also able to make a few plays of his own, finishing with five tackles while getting a chance to display his quickness and ability to make open-field stops.
"I’m not where I need to be at all," Merriweather said. "I think as the season continues and the weeks go by, I understand more."
He held off a challenge from sophomore walk-on Jack Koerner to earn his starting opportunity, something he doesn’t take for granted.
And last weekend, he wasn’t alone.
"My mom was excited. She pretty much recorded every single play when I was in the game and sent me every single video after the game," Merriweather said. "So, it was pretty cool, pretty exciting."