May 22, 2024

IOWA CITY — Iowa football star defensive back Cooper DeJean will miss the remainder of the 2023 season due to a lower leg injury, coach Kirk Ferentz announced in a statement Wednesday.

“This is truly heartbreaking for Cooper,” Ferentz said in a statement. “He has played extremely well and is a real playmaker on our team. We will all support Cooper during his recovery, which will continue into the new year.

“This has been a season filled with challenges for our team. I am proud of how our players have responded with tremendous grit and determination. We are focused on Saturday.”

Ferentz said during his Wednesday night radio show that DeJean was injured after he planted his foot and twisted his leg during Wednesday’s practice. Ferentz said the estimated recovery time is 6-8 weeks.

More:Leistikow’s Iowa-Illinois football prediction: Is Cooper DeJean injury one too many?

This is a very significant loss. DeJean is not just one of the best defenders for the Hawkeyes, but also in the nation. He was in the running for a handful of national honors, including the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is awarded to the best defender in Division I college football. After DeJean put together a remarkable 2022 season, there was a considerable amount of hype entering this season and DeJean lived up to it.

But it’s not just the defensive side where DeJean holds importance to Iowa. He was a key part of Iowa’s special teams. During Iowa’s game against Michigan State, DeJean had an electrifying punt return touchdown in Kinnick Stadium to give Iowa the lead in the fourth quarter. He nearly did it again in the game against Minnesota but it was ruled that he made an invalid fair catch signal, wiping out what could’ve been another punt return touchdown.

Among the many ripple effects of this injury is Iowa having to throw in a different punt returner. Kaden Wetjen is expected to fill that role. Because of how poor Iowa’s offense has been, special teams, including punt returning, has been a valuable facet of the game. DeJean has contributed to that.

DeJean was so explosive with the ball in his hands that Iowa actually put him on offense. He was an accomplished quarterback at OABCIG High School in northwest Iowa but was recruited to the Hawkeyes on the defensive side of the ball. But this season, in part due to Iowa’s inept offense, DeJean was briefly inserted on offense against Northwestern, where he recorded one carry.

Iowa’s secondary has a major hole to fill now. A prime candidate to fill in for DeJean is redshirt freshman Deshaun Lee. Lee started Iowa’s first two games this season in the absence of Jermari Harris, who was suspended during that stretch. Lee was a standout at Kids’ Day at Kinnick in August and held his own in Iowa’s first two games this season against Utah State and Iowa State.

There’s reason to believe that Lee is capable of stepping in. Iowa’s defense, which has only allowed one touchdown in the last four games, still has many of the pieces that have made it so successful this season. Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson have been fantastic. Sebastian Castro has had a breakout season. And of course it has the coaching of defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

But with DeJean out, there’s more uncertainty surrounding what the duo of Lee and Harris are capable of. DeJean was a game-wrecker, not just because of his ability to lock down offensive players, but also his ability to create turnovers. Lee lacks experience at the college level. Harris has been good in eight games in 2023, but he did miss the entirety of last season and the first two games of this season, so he hasn’t been in the flow of the game for nearly as long as someone like DeJean.

More:Everything you need to know about Iowa vs. Illinois on Saturday. Time, TV schedule

There are parallels between where Iowa currently sits and what it dealt with last season. Iowa simply needed to beat Nebraska in the final game of the 2022 regular season to clinch a berth in the Big Ten Championship game. But DeJean went down early in that game with an injury and Nebraska torched Iowa’s secondary. The Hawkeyes lost the game and squandered a trip to Indianapolis.

 

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