Paschal Back, Better Than Ever

Iowa Safety Marcus Paschal's ACL tear might have been the only bad news to come out of the team's exciting Capitol One Bowl victory last January. The junior has recovered nicely, however, and has enjoyed his switch to free safety from strong safety. Read about the Florida native almost passing on his official visit, what he learned from Bob Sanders, his friendship with Miguel Merrick and the possibility of another Paschal becoming a Hawkeye in this full-length feature.

We all know how the flu drains energy. Most of the time, you feel like crawling into bed and shutting off the outside world.

The bug was zapping Marcus Paschal in December of 2001. And it almost cost him the chance to play football at Iowa.

"I wasn't even going to come up here on a visit," the Florida native recalled earlier this week. "I figured I'd just pick between Hofstra and Troy State, and that would be it."

Those I-AA schools were the only others outside of Iowa to offer Paschal a scholarship (Troy since has moved to I-A). The Hawkeyes liked what they saw in him and the status of other programs never factors into the pursuit of a particular.

Iowa Defensive Backs Coach Phil Parker set up a visit for Paschal. But when defensive coordinator Norm Parker showed up at Largo (Fla.) High during the week of the trip, Paschal shocked the veteran coach.

"I told him I wasn't going to come up that weekend," Paschal remembered. "I was tired and sick and didn't really feel like I had another trip in me. But after (Norm Parker) left, I thought about it and thought that I might be selling myself short. I figured I might as well go up and see what was going on."

Paschal liked what he saw. He marveled at the commitment to improvement put in by the coaches and players. He committed shortly after he returned to Florida.

"It wasn't the case for me that Iowa was a Big Ten school and the others were double A's," Paschal said. "It wasn't about that. I just wanted to make the best decision for me and pick the right place."

After learning the safety position behind all-time Hawkeye great Bob Sanders, Paschal moved into Iowa's starting lineup in 2004 as a redshirt sophomore. He put together a fine first year as a starter despite it ending with him tearing his in Iowa's Capitol One Bowl victory.

Paschal worked hard in rehabilitating his knee and returned to the first-team for last Saturday's 56-0 drubbing of Ball State in the season opener. A few days before the game, Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz questioned whether his junior was 100 percent healthy.

"I wouldn't (agree with Ferentz's assessment)," Paschal said. "Sometimes the coach might not want to say too much to (avoid alerting) the other team. But I feel as good as I've ever felt."

Paschal (6-0, 199) likely will play a big role in Saturday's showdown with Iowa State in Ames (2:30 pm., ABC). After playing strong safety last season, he is playing free safety, the quarterback of the secondary, which faces a strong Cyclone offense.

"The difference is that strong safety is more up around the run," Paschal said. "The free safety position, you're the commander in chief out there. You're making the calls, and you're the last line of defense."

As a quarterback in high school, Paschal learned to be a leader. He completed 113 of 238 passes for 1,724 yards as a senior to go along with 959 yards and seven scores on the ground. He also recorded 61 tackles and eight interceptions as a defensive back, helping him earn all-county honors.

It was during a county all-star contest that Paschal caught the eye of Iowa.

"I did pretty good; returned a couple of punts and had a couple of big hits," he said. "In our county, we had Chris Davis. He was the No. 1 athlete coming out our year. From there, Coach Phil (Parker) started recruiting me."

Paschal arrived at Iowa for the 2002 season and benefited from working behind some of the best defensive backs ever to play at the school. Bob Sanders, Derek Pagel and Sean Considine all were drafted into the NFL when their Hawkeye careers ended.

"I learned tons of stuff because all of them have different aspects of the game that they're strongest at," Paschal said. "You have Bob being the aggressor out there. You have Considine being athletic but also being real smart. Then you have Pagel out there like a commander."

Paschal viewed the depth chart during his true freshman campaign and realized his best shot to get on the field the fastest would be at strong safety. Sanders, who played a huge role in increasing the toughness of the Iowa defense, would be leaving for the NFL in time for Paschal to challenge for a starting spot as a redshirt sophomore.

"All I was focused on was trying to get here and learn from him," Paschal said. "I figured if I could learn from him, I could someday get on the field. It happened."

The Iowa coaches voted Paschal winner of the Next Man In Award on defense last season. He started all 12 games (10 at strong, two at free), registering 58 tackles (one for loss), two interceptions, six pass breakups, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.

While making a tackle during a 30-25 Capitol One Bowl victory against LSU, Paschal felt pain in his leg.

"I felt the pop but I didn't really think it was that bad," he said. "I went to the sideline and starting jogging around and everything. I didn't realize it until we came back from our little break (while the offense was on the field. (The trainers originally) thought that it was just a sprained MCL."

Paschal underwent surgery to repair the ACL in January. He lagged behind the normal recovery rate for the first few months. Although that bothered him, he caught up physically and mentally with the help of teammates who already had sustained the injury earlier that season.

"I didn't ever get down because I was never in that situation where I was by myself," Paschal said. "Being that I have roommates like Jovon (Johnson) and Clint (Solomon), they were always around me and picking me up. I wasn't down because there was always something to keep my mind off of it."

Missing spring ball concerned Paschal, but he decided to look on the bright side of things.

"That gave a lot of time for other players to learn and get practice out there," he said.

The Iowa staff began running Paschal through individual drills in July. The safety showed no ill effects from the workouts and opened August camp ready to go.

"I felt really good the whole time I was out there," he said. "It was just getting back to the work capacity of playing and practicing all day. That was the biggest adjustment."

Iowa conducted a three-man race during camp for the two starting safety spots. Paschal, Miguel Merrick and Charles Godfrey participated in the competition. Paschal and Merrick opened up with the first-team against Ball State.

Paschal is adjusting smoothly to playing free safety full time. It might better suit his strengths as a vocal leader. From there, he's not afraid to critique his teammates.

"Everybody knows that you're going to have criticism," Paschal said. "It's fine as long as it's for the better. Sometimes they take it the wrong way at first, but they understand. After we get off of the field, I let them know it wasn't anything personal. We're all here trying to get better together."

Raising his understanding of the game serves as the area of his greatest improvement from last year to now, Paschal said. Occasionally, he needs to pinch himself to make sure he's not living a dream.

"It feels real good to know where I came from to where I am right now; coming out of high school and not really being recruited by many colleges," he said. "It's nice to see me out there making calls for Iowa."

Paschal enjoys looking across the field and seeing Merrick out there with him. The two enrolled at Iowa the same year and have become close friends.

Merrick converted from wide receiver to safety upon joining the Hawkeyes. Paschal helped his classmate learn the new position.

"He's a fun guy," Merrick said of his friend. "He gives it his all. He has a great personality, and he's probably the energizer in the defensive backfield. He's one of the guys to get us started. He doesn't talk much (to the opponents during the game), but he plays with a lot of energy and a lot of passion."

Merrick and Paschal sometimes like to brag about which of their home states has the best high school football. The former is from talent-rich New Jersey. The latter hails from football-crazy Florida. Iowa boasts a number of players from both states.

"They joke around with it, but they know where the real ball is played," Paschal said of the New Jersey guys.

Paschal comes from an athletic family. His father, Anthony, played football. His mother, Anita, stood out in track and field.

Andrew Paschal, Marcus' younger brother, plays football at Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College. The 6-foot-3 wide receiver currently leads the Greyhounds with 13 receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown after two games.

The younger Paschal will be done with junior college in January, and the Hawkeyes are recruiting him with the possibility of getting him to enroll at that time.

Getting Marcus to shake off the flu and visit Iowa City back in '01 might end up being an even bigger coup than Iowa originally thought it would be.

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