QUICK LOOK BACK: For the first time in maybe Iowa history and definitely under coach Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes lost two juniors to early declarations for the NFL draft. Yes, Dallas Clark and Shonn Greene gave up years of eligibility, but they were also going to be 24-year-old seniors. Bryan Bulaga and Amari Spievey would’ve been a four-year senior and fifth-year, respectively.
Spievey’s departure obviously blows a hole in the secondary. He was as lock down as any cornerback in Ferentz’s 11 seasons as Iowa’s coach. Teams simply didn’t throw his way, something he told me after Iowa picked off five passes against Iowa State last September. No, none of those INTs were Spievey’s.
Strong safety Tyler Sash continued to stoke his reputation as one of the Big Ten’s premier ballhawks. In his two seasons as starter, Sash (6-1, 210) has 11 interceptions, tied for sixth on Iowa’s career list. Devon Mitchell and Nile Kinnick hold the record with 18. He’ll miss spring practice after a second consecutive offseason shoulder surgery. He’ll be ready for fall practice.
Free safety Brett Greenwood put in another solid season, with three interceptions and 55 tackles. He suffered a sprained neck against Michigan State and tried to make a comeback the next week against Indiana. He also had shoulder surgery for a second consecutive offseason. I contend that no other Hawkeye gets more out of his body than Greenwood (6-0, 200).
After Jordan Bernstine suffered a broken ankle last August, Iowa went through two games of experimentation at the left corner spot. But when Shaun Prater finished a two-game suspension (OWI), he secured the job. He finished the season with two interceptions and eight pass breakups. He’s one corner next fall. The other will be a race between Bernstine, sophomore Micah Hyde, sophomore Greg Castillo and junior Willie Lowe.
FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Depth is OK at corner, a little inexperienced but OK. Safety depth is sort of non-existent, the product of having four-year (Greenwood) and three-year (Sash) starters.
I wouldn’t call David Cato’s transfer a giant deathblow to safety depth, but it hurt. Cato was an aggressive player who flashed in goal-line situations. He would’ve been great for Iowa to have, but he wasn’t going to pass Sash or Greenwood. This is the product of longtime starters and it has left Iowa with an experience gap behind Sash/Greenwood.
Right now, I’d say Jason White, a walk-on, is the No. 2 strong safety. Nick Nielsen and Jack Swanson will fight it out to back up Greenwood. Iowa recruited three safety prospects for a refill. One of them might see some time this year.
THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Spievey’s departure hurts, for sure in the immediate. The
secondary now has a hole. But long-range, the PR could help Iowa. If Spievey squeezes into the first or second round, that just shows recruits that, yes, the NFL knows exactly where Iowa City is and the path to the league does indeed go through the Kenyon Complex. Of course, Iowa’s NFL track record under Ferentz is there, but expect a boost this April. So, that’s the positive side of Spievey’s departure, if you want to see that side.
Iowa’s recruiting did take a late turn into the safety bin, picking up two commits after Cato transferred.
St. Louis’ Don Shumpert committed early. He’ll come in as a rangy (6-3, 185) free safety prospect. He also has great video as a receiver at Hazelwood East. Ohio’s Anthony Hitchens earned his stripes as a high school running back, but the 6-1, 200-pounder comes into Iowa as a strong safety prospect. Tanner Miller, Iowa’s last recruit, will begin his career as a strong safety. At 6-2, 195, he has the body for it.
Cincinnati’s B.J. Lowery (5-11, 180) is the lone corner prospect Iowa brought in last February. He probably redshirts a year to build the body, but he’s an extremely skilled athlete who could get a bump with a good fall camp.
SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: Right corner is going to be the spot to watch.
Bernstine (5-11, 205) would’ve had his second shot at earning a starting role in Iowa’s secondary. In 2008, he lost out to Spievey. He has the best size of the players in this race and the most experience in Iowa’s defense. He had great measureables coming out of Des Moine Lincoln (a 4.3ish 40). Will the ankle injury take away from his speed and mobility? Probably not. By the time it matters, it will have had an entire year to heal. This won’t be handed to him, but either way, he’s an important player next season.
Hyde will give the biggest push here, I believe. He earned quite a bit of PT as a true freshman early in the season but that dwindled to some dime package time. He played special teams all season. What makes me think he’s in the plans solidly in 2010 was the Orange Bowl appearance. It was a handful of plays, but it also said he was the third corner at the end of last season. This is the Iowa football program. How you finish matters. He’s in the plans, even if he doesn’t win a starter’s spot. Whoever doesn’t win the start at right corner could be heavily in the mix at free safety, setting up a possible starting role in 2011.
Castillo earned the start opposite Spievey against Northern Iowa. Then, he suffered a groin injury and disappeared for a bunch of weeks. He ended up on special teams. He has an outside shot, but needs an excellent camp to break into the Bernstine-Hyde race. Same for Lowe, who is a candidate for backup at either corner spot.
Bernstine has the inside edge and, after a couple close calls for a starting role and a broken ankle, he’ll be right with Jewel Hampton as one of the hungriest players on the roster. He has the edge, but don’t discount Hyde (6-1, 170). His Orange Bowl appearance showed he earned trust of coaches and that he moved up a few rungs.
FIRST DOWN — “On Iowa” predictions for 2010: Iowa has good depth at corner and should benefit from the competition between Bernstine/Hyde and Castillo/Lowe. Given what the safety position does to the body, secondary coach Phil Parker needs to have safety No. 3 ID’d. Should be some good competition there, too. Probably Nielsen/Swanson with a freshman maybe finding a way in. (Which freshman? Hitchens will have to brush up on technique. Miller might need a year in the weightroom. So, I’d guess Shumpert, who, going off the videos, is a very fluid athlete. Top speed for him looks effortless.)
This is where Iowa can bask in having four- and three-year starters at the safety spots. Iowa can let Sash, a first-team all-Big Ten pick last year, do his thing. Greenwood was a second-team all-Big Ten pick. They should be in the running, at the very least, in 2010.
Top 5 performances in Iowa’s secondary 2009:
1. SS Tyler Sash vs. Iowa State: three interceptions, forced fumble and two tackles for loss.
2. CB Amari Spievey vs. Wisconsin: third-quarter pick led to a TD and fourth-quarter pick sealed road victory.
3. Sash vs. Indiana: 86-yard INT return for a TD that pretty much saved the day, also seven tackles.
4. FS Brett Greenwood vs. Michigan: sealed 28-26 victory with INT, along with seven tackles and a breakup.
5. CB Shaun Prater vs. Indiana: an INT with three passes broken up and eight tackles.