IOWA CITY — Jack Koerner belongs.
In the way he prepared, the way he trained, the way he contributed on special teams and now, in the way he has competed in the first four starts of his collegiate career, the Iowa free safety has proven he belongs.
"My idea all along has been to just be ready, to do what I needed to do to be ready whenever an opportunity came up," the sophomore walk-on from West Des Moines Dowling said.
That opportunity occurred the day before the Hawkeyes opened their Big Ten season on Sept. 7 with a home game against Rutgers.
Starter Kaevon Merriweather sprained a foot during a Friday practice and wasn’t going to be able to play the next day.
That’s when Koerner became the next man in at free safety.
He hasn’t looked back.
As 17th-ranked Iowa works toward Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game at Kinnick Stadium against 10th-ranked Penn State, Koerner is preparing himself for the next challenge.
First-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford leads the Big Ten’s most productive passing attack, averaging 261.3 passing yards per game as he orchestrates the Nittany Lions’ offense.
Penn State deploys a read option attack as effectively as anyone in the league, and Clifford currently averages 40 rushing yards per game in an offense that has piled up an average of 499.6 yards on its way to a 5-0 start to the season.
"They have a lot of speed, and they do a good job with their offense," Koermer said. "This is a game where we have got to be good with our eyes and be consistent in how we attack them."
Only two Hawkeyes — linebackers Kristian Welch and Djimon Colbert — have more than the 20 tackles Koerner has recorded through five games this season.
His work has included eight tackles and a fourth-quarter pass break up that forced a turnover on downs at Iowa State, and last week at Michigan, he forced a fumble and broke up a pass in addition to recording five tackles.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Koerner’s success has been a byproduct of his effort.
"He’s worked extremely hard," Ferentz said. "I thought last spring he really started to play with some confidence back there and looked like a guy who was capable of maybe going out there and helping us as a football team.
"He’s done a good job on special teams, but as a safety and then certainly in this camp, he’s done a really nice job. So when the door opened, he was ready to go. It’s a credit to him."
Koerner arrived at Iowa after earning all-state honors at Dowling, where he became one of former Hawkeye assistant Reese Morgan’s under-recruited "finds."
Before joining Iowa’s 2017 recruiting class as a preferred walk-on, Koerner had committed to South Dakota and entertained offers from Northern Iowa and South Dakota State.
But, he wanted more.
"I grew up a Hawkeye fan, my parents graduated from here, this is where I really wanted to be and where I wanted to get a chance to prove that I belonged," Koerner said. "I believed that I could compete here. I believed in myself, and that has given me this chance."
He watched as Jake Gervase, Amani Hooker and Geno Stone grew into roles in the Hawkeye secondary.
He soaked up as much knowledge as he could, asking questions, following their lead and eventually following another one-time walk-on, Gervase, into the lineup.
"He’s stepped in and has done a great job," Stone said. "To come in and be ready to play the way he has, that’s been big for us. With the injuries we’ve had on the back end, we needed someone to rise up, and he’s been that guy."
Stone continues to help Koerner, making certain that he is making the right calls from one play to the next.
"The guys that paved the way, I’ve been able to learn from them and learn how they succeeded," Koerner said.
With Gervase and Hooker now under contract with NFL teams, Koerner took the field in the spring wanting to expand his role beyond the time he saw primarily on special teams a year ago.
"Spring was big for me," he said. "I came in hoping to work my way up the depth chart a bit, see what I could do. I felt good, felt like I was making some progress and giving myself a chance."
He worked his way into a competitive situation with Merriweather during spring practices, a competition that continued in fall camp and has resumed now with Merriweather’s return to practice from the foot sprain.
"We’re making each other better every day," Koerner said. "The competition, it’s still there and it’s still ongoing. I think we’re both out there pushing each other to get better and helping each out, doing what we can to make each other better and help the team."
Those ideals — that sense of team — is one of the reasons Iowa coaches liked what they saw in Koerner.
They saw a player who belonged, something Koerner plans to continue to prove each day.
"It’s been good to be out there every week competing, doing what I can," Koerner said. "I feel more comfortable every week. I still have a lot to room to get better, but it feels good to be there helping make our defense as good as it can be."