When All-American safety Kaevon Merriweather opted out of the Music City Bowl in preparation for the NFL draft, everybody and their grandmother knew: It was time for freshman safety Xavier Nwankpa to shine. The 5-star recruit from Southeast Polk didn’t disappoint in his first start.

How about a 52-yard pick six? Not a bad debut for the next Dough Boy. And now Nwankpa is set to take over Merriweather’s FS position full-time in his true sophomore season. The expectation is that he’ll fit seamlessly, but that’s not the goal.

“I felt a little pressure when I first got here,” Nwankpa said. “But really — what I want to do is to exceed expectations.”

And so far, he’s left an impression on his Hawkeye teammates. Cornerback Jermari Harris missed all of 2022 due to injury, and has seen his growth from the start.

“Last year he practiced well,” Harris said. “I thought throughout the year he grew tremendously and he’s still continuing to grow through spring.”

Quinn Schulte would probably agree.

“When he first came in here, you could tell how much he’s developed and how much he’s gotten better,” Schulte said. “I think you see that every day he’s out there — every rep looks better than the last one.”

And the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Nwankpa has sky-high potential. Physically, he looks the part. Cooper DeJean said he’s noticed maturity in his game.

“I think you can just tell that out here in practice that the game is starting to slow down for him,” the star cornerback said.

“I feel more confident in what I’m doing,” Nwankpa added. “I understand the defense a lot better, easy to make reads and everything.”

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