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No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes' Belton knows that team's success is his best path to the NFL

Steve Batterson
Quad City Times
Iowa's Dane Belton knows where he wants to end up: in the NFL. "Football is a challenging sport in and of itself, but coming into a higher platform in college knowing what it takes to be a collegiate athlete, you have to have that motivation that you want to go beyond," said Belton, who has started 12 games over the past two years.

IOWA CITY — That next step.

From the beginning, that has been the motivation which continues to drive Iowa defensive back Dane Belton.

Preparing for the start of his junior season, Belton continues to work toward positioning himself to take that next step in his development in the Hawkeyes defense. A starter in 12 games over the past two seasons, Belton has grown from initially lining up at safety to shifting between that role and making additional starts in the hybrid outside linebacker/cash position.

The Tampa native has embraced every opportunity he has been presented.

"Football is a challenging sport in and of itself, but coming into a higher platform in college knowing what it takes to be a collegiate athlete, you have to have that motivation that you want to go beyond," Belton said. "For me personally and for a lot of my peers, I know that 'the league' is the goal."

That remains a long-term objective that Belton realizes can only be accomplished by meeting short-term objectives. The chance to do that was among the reasons Belton selected Iowa in the first place, arriving in the fall of 2019 and becoming one of eight true freshmen to see action for the Hawkeyes that fall.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz talks to defensive back Dane Belton during the 2019 game at Nebraska. In the 22 seasons Ferentz has coached Iowa, the program has produced 16 defensive backs that have been chosen in the NFL draft.  Belton hopes he's next in line.

He played in eight games that season, starting four, before earning honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition last season.

He finished his sophomore year with 15 tackles for a loss and one sack among his 33 tackles in the Hawkeyes' eight games. Belton also broke up five passes and forced one fumble.

More importantly, he continued to develop skills, as he hoped would happen when he made a well-researched decision to sign with Iowa.

He arrived following an all-state career at Tampa Jesuit High School, aware of the Hawkeyes' reputation for developing defensive backs and preparing them well for opportunities in the NFL.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker, Iowa's secondary coach throughout coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure, was among the reasons Belton chose the Hawkeyes. He saw the opportunity to learn from coaches who would help him prepare for that next step.

In the 22 seasons Ferentz has coached Iowa and Parker has worked with the Hawkeyes' defensive backs, the program has built a reputation for developing NFL-ready players in the secondary.

A total of 16 Iowa defensive backs have been chosen in the NFL draft since Ferentz became the Hawkeyes' head coach in 1999. Matt Bowen was the first, taken in 2000, with Derek Pagel selected in 2003 and Bob Sanders and Sean Considine going in the next two NFL drafts.

In 2020, former Hawkeyes defensive backs Jake Gervase, Amani Hooker, Micah Hyde, Josh Jackson, Desmond King, Greg Mabin, Michael Ojemudia and Geno Stone saw action for NFL teams.

Belton said he was well aware of that reputation as he made his college choice. The two-time academic All-Big Ten selection chose Iowa for a multitude of reasons, but the chance to learn from Parker was among them.

"Coach Parker has the reputation for sending people to the league, and that was one of the biggest factors for me," Belton said. "Over the years, how many players has he taken, guys who were maybe low-star recruits, and developed them into a top Big Ten defensive back. Then, they go on to become one of the best in the league."

Iowa defensive back Dane Belton reacts to a penalty called as Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson gets offered a hand from Hawkeyes defensive back Geno Stone and Minnesota's Demetrius Douglas during their 2019 game.

The desire to ultimately take that next step is an obvious goal for any collegiate player.

"If they're not bringing it up, they're thinking about it," Ferentz said, seeing that as a natural dream for any young high school player as he is recruited. Ferentz said filling NFL rosters is not a goal of the Iowa program.

"I always tell our players, and tell prospects, it's a byproduct of having a good college career. Just like when I talk to kids at our camps, I tell them to have a great high school career if they want to be a college football player," he said. "Focus on that and things will work themselves out if they're supposed to."

Belton gets that. He said before he signed with Iowa, he could see a path forward to take that next step with the help of Parker and the Iowa staff.

"Knowing what he had done, and knowing how much I love football and love learning the game, I felt like this was the right place for me to grow," Belton said.

That growth during the upcoming season will take place in an experienced position group, competition Belton welcomes.

"The competition level is really high right now and that is only going to make us better," he said. "It's great motivation, knowing that you will have to earn what you get."

Our preseason Top 25

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

Our previous Top 25 team stories:

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0

No. 24 Washington: Huskies' Morris looks like the quarterback to run with — for now

No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants it)

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions' safeties honed their craft at Lackawanna

No. 21 Oklahoma State: The next Gundy (Gunnar) begins his Cowboys career