Four downs with the defensive backs

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March 31, 2014 | 1:30 pm

QUICK LOOK BACK: Despite two veteran safeties and one returning starter at cornerback, the Hawkeye allowed more throwing yards last season than they have in the previous five. Now, a lot of factors go into that, specifically the fact that averaged just 3.24 yards a carry on the ground against Iowa. Also, sacks were down, so QBs were able to find comfort and rhythm more so than 2009.

All the other numbers worked out. Passing efficiency was a little higher in 2010, but it was still below the national average of 129.13. The 19 interceptions was down from '09 and '08 (how did the 2008 Hawkeyes lose four games? Seriously, check out the numbers) but still was 11th in the country. Iowa allowed just 12 TD passes. That's down from '09 and '08, but top third or better in the nation last year.

The secondary was about what you would've thought it would be with a fifth-year senior and fourth-year junior at safeties, a junior and a sophomore at CB.

Free safety Brett Greenwood, who led the Hawkeyes with six interceptions, and strong safety Tyler Sash allowed Iowa to flip from a Cover 2 to a Cover 4 and, occasionally, to a Cover 6. The National Football Post's Matt Bowen, a former Hawkeye and NFL safety himself, breaks down the Sash interception against Michigan State in this post, illustrating the flexibility these two (who had an incredible 84 starts between them) gave Iowa's defense.

Prater played well enough (four interceptions and fifth on the team with 68 tackles) to bring the NFL decision into play for him. He elected to stay for his fourth season at the UI. Hyde took some gambles in his first season as a starter. Once he settled in, he was solid, with two INT returns for TDs including the game-winner against Missouri in the Insight Bowl.

Hyde looks very, very comfortable with a football in his hand. Not sure exactly what I mean by that, but you saw it. He's begging for some sort of return role at least, right?

FOURTH DOWN -- CONCERNS: Sash and Greenwood started 84 games for the Hawkeyes. What does that mean? They were fully matured players, not only physically but mentally. They were video junkies. They maximized their bodies by doing the extra video that put them in position to be in the right place at the right time for a tipped interception. It meant Norm Parker or whomever was calling the defense had the flexibility to whip through Cover 2, Cover 4 or Cover 6 on any given play, keeping quarterbacks guessing at least a little bit.

It's not just knowing where to run. It's understanding tendencies and being able to put a little nuance into what you're trying to do out there. Change on the fly. Fix something that's not working, or at least attempt to.

That's what 84 starts mean. Iowa and defensive backs coach Phil Parker won't have that this year.

Corner is less of a concern, with the return of Prater. But if the Hyde-safety thing happens, as Kirk Ferentz mentioned yesterday, Greg Castillo and B.J. Lowery will need to rise up. The way Iowa plays its defense, corners need to know the nuance, too. Iowa is everything but man converage. Again, it's more than knowing where to run. Castillo, in his fourth season, should have a feel for that. Lowery is just a second-year sophomore, so he's probably still in learning mode.

If Hyde moves or not, Iowa will have two new safeties. Iowa might have one new corner. Junior walk-on Collin Sleeper is listed as the starter at strong safety right now this spring. There is some newness and it can't easily be dismissed.

THIRD DOWN -- ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: As discussed above, 84 starts are gone. Greenwood and Sash -- or Starsky and Hutch as I called them after the interception barrage at ISU in '09 -- also were leader-types who carried the banner no matter how many times their shoulders were operated on.

They had four surgeries on their shoulders between them (two on Greenwood's left and both of Sash's). Kind of makes you appreciate this quote from this post:

“You have to be smart and when you make up your mind, you’ve got to pull the pin and you’ve got to go,” Iowa strong safety Tyler Sash said. “Playing safety, you can’t be worried about, hey, is this going to hurt or is this going to be good on my body.

“Most of the time, it’s not going to be good on your body.”

There are no redshirts to introduce, so we'll go right to a rundown on the incoming freshmen, some of whom will play on special teams for sure and maybe in nickel-dime situations.

If you're on Twitter and you follow the Hawkeyes, then you already know Nico Law, a 6-1, 180-pounder from Maryland. I asked him on Twitter and he said he's coming in as a strong safety. With that in mind, it's probably a safe bet that Cole Fisher, from Omaha, comes in as a free safety. He's a rangy 6-2, 195 and a tackling machine.

Torrey Campbell, from Naples, Fla., is headed to corner. And judging by his recent title in the 60-meter hurdles at a national indoor meet in Seattle, the 5-11, 183-pounder is headed there very, very quickly. (Here's a link on that.) Jordan Lomax also will start out at corner. He's also on the track circuit this spring.

All four could see time on special teams and maybe sneak into roles in throwing situations.

Not sure if Sleeper counts as a newcomer. He's a junior and listed as No. 1 strong safety going into spring practice. He's not new, but he also hasn't played in his first two seasons.

North Tama's Brendan Boerm will walk-on. He's the kid who put up a Nile Kinnick-type performance in the Class A state title game and was named the Gazette/KCRG player of the year. He'll begin his career on defense.

SECOND DOWN -- BATTLES BREWING: It's either both safety spots or it's one safety and one corner. Where

 Hyde ends up is obviously what to watch here. It's an interesting prospect. Hyde is a rangy 6-1, 185. The thing he might be asking himself is where does he project in the NFL? Is he a corner or a safety? Average and some say optimum size for an NFL corner is 5-11, 190. It's a different position in the NFL. At Iowa, you're locked into a zone coverage 99 percent of the time. An NFL corner is asked to 6-4, 225 wide receivers on the line of scrimmage and then turn and run with them. Safeties are a little taller and heavier. Hyde's lean body type might fight more into a safety mode, but that's total projection.

So, let's say Hyde ends up at free safety.

Free safety would then go Hyde (who you know will check out the NFL draft after this season), junior Jack Swanson (5-11, 200), senior Kyle Steinbrecher (6-2, 201), senior Nick Nielsen (6-3, 210) and Fisher. Swanson is the only active scholarship athlete in that group (until Fisher arrives). He's been involved in special teams, but hasn't seen a lot of time in the defensive rotation.

Strong safety will be a battle royale. Sophomore Tanner Miller (6-2, 195), who's out this spring after shoulder surgery, would be the free safety if Hyde sticks to corner. So, logically, in an effort to get the best combination on the field, he would be a strong candidate to slide to strongside. Miller would be one of the bigger safeties Iowa has had. He's tough. He's quiet. He's basically an Iowa coach's dream kid.

But he wouldn't be automatic. This is senior Jordan Bernstine's last chance to matter. His career has been snuffed out to this point because of injury. He suffered a broken ankle two years ago that wasn't your typical broken ankle. Ferentz said Wednesday it was a non-contact injury that doctors said looked like a contact injury. Bernstine also had rhabdo and will be monitored this spring.

Don't count out Tom Donatell, a 6-2, 205-pound walk-on senior. Donatell, who also suffered with rhabdo, is big, rangy and, as five seasons as a walk-on shows, very tough. He'll be in the mix. Also, Sleeper is No. 1 on the spring depth chart for a reason. He's a tremendous athlete and will have a chance to translate that onto the field this spring.

Could Law make the defensive depth chart in his first season? It's possible. He has the size (6-1, 180), but the knowledge of how Iowa does what it does on defense won't be there.

Prater is locked in. He'll be a better player this year than last year and he will be in the NFL. He's a corner who can cover and tackle.

If the Hyde thing sticks, the other side will come down to Castillo (5-11, 180) and B.J. Lowery (5-11, 180). Castillo has fought his way into a slowly increased role. Last year, he played in a lot of nickel situations, something that was prominent in the Insight Bowl. He might be on the smallish side, but he's put himself in position to start next year. Lowery played some nickel last season, more late in the year than early. He also saw some special teams.

There is a reason why Iowa coaches feel comfortable with the idea that Hyde could play safety. Well, maybe a couple of reasons. Hyde just might want to play it because that's how he sees himself getting paid in the NFL. Also, coaches wouldn't explore this if they didn't feel there was a suitable replacement. That's where Castillo and Lowery come in. Coaches must like what they see.

Corner will likely be a situation where the No. 3 is the backup at both spots.

So, behind Prater there's Castillo/Lowery and Campbell. The other side will be Lowery/Castillo with senior Willie Lowe and Lomax backing up.

FIRST DOWN -- "On Iowa" prediction for 2011: Let's try to figure out a two deep:

Free safety -- Hyde, Bernstine (Now, Ferentz did say Iowa was "toying" with the idea. Does that mean toying the way they did with Dallas Clark at tight end or toying the way they did with Julian Vandervelde at center, which never happened?)

Strong safety -- Miller, Donatell, Bernstine (Miller and Donatell are a couple big, strong 6-2 bodies. Bernstine showed coaches something in the Insight bowl. In the fall, there are going to be three serious contenders for these two spots.)

Left corner -- Prater, Castillo/Lowery (Prater, who also fought through rhabdo, was first-team all-Big Ten last season -- I voted for him, BTW -- and will add to that resume this year.)

Right corner -- Castillo, Lowery (Castillo has been in the system. He'll get first shot to show if he can handle it.)

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2010 -- 115.1

2009 -- 90.00

2008 -- 98.31

2007 -- 115.7

2006 -- 120.21

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2010 -- 2,997

2009 -- 1,988

2008 -- 2,565

2007 -- 2,750

2006 -- 2,732

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2010 -- 298 of 479 with 19 INT and 12 TD

2009 -- 190 of 383 with 21 INT and 9 TD

2008 -- 256 of 463 with 23 INT and 9 TD

2007 -- 247 of 426 with 14 INT and 13 TD

2006 -- 241 of 423 with 14 INT and 20 TD

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2010 -- 1) Brett Greenwood 6, 2) Micah Hyde 4, 3) Shaun Prater 4

2009 -- 1) Tyler Sash 6, A.J. Edds 5, 3) Greenwood 3

2008 -- 1) Sash 5, 2) Angerer 5, 3) Amari Spievey 4

2007 -- 1) Charles Godfrey 5, 2) Mike Humpal 3, 3) Greenwood 2

2006 -- 1) Adam Shada 3, 2) Humpal 3, 3) Miguel Merrick 3

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Illinois -- The Illini have a new secondary coach, Mike Gilhammer, who spent the last seven seasons with the Carolina Panthers, where he worked with the safeties. Rating -- Honorable mention. If Trulon Henry moves from saftey to strongside linebacker, Illinois has a big hole to fill among others. Justin Green might be the only solidified starter going into spring.

Indiana -- The Hoosiers finished 114th in the nation last year with a pass efficiency defense of 156.32. That was worst in the Big Ten. Rating -- Honorable mention. Safeties Donnell Jones and Chris Adkins return, but the corners are new.

Iowa -- The Hawkeyes have two for-sures in the secondary in Shaun Prater and Micah Hyde. And they have to open jobs. Rating -- Second team. The corner race between Greg Castillo and B.J. Lowery will be key for this group.

Michigan -- Michigan was 112 of 120 Bowl Subdivision teams defending the pass, but that ranking comes with explanation. The Wolverines missed starting CBs. Troy Woolfolk missed all of the season, and J.T. Floyd was out the final five games. Rating -- Second team. The Wolverines have been hurt by attrition here. New coach Brady Hoke signed four DBs in the 2011 recruiting class.

Michigan State -- Safety Trenton Robinson and corner Johnny Adams were second-team all-Big Ten picks last season by the league's coaches. Rating -- First team. Robinson and Adams are a great place to start for what should be a solid defense, even with the departure of all-Big Ten linebacker Greg Jones.

Minnesota -- Senior safety Kim Royston was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing 2010 with a broken leg. After Royston, the Gophers are new and thin and thin. Rating -- Honorable mention.

Nebraska -- With the departure of Prince Amukamara, look for senior corner Alfonzo Dennard to grab mega headlines. Dennard was second-team all-Big 12 and had four interceptions last season. Rating -- Silver football. Safeties Courtney Osborne and Austin Cassidy return after taking over the starting safety roles midway through last season. Lots of experience and talent lining up for the Huskers.

Northwestern -- Safety Brian Peters and corner Jordan Mabin return for the Wildcats. It's newness after those two, but they experienced veterans and put the 'Cats in position to be more than able. Rating -- Second team. If the competition for the other two spots produces, secondary could be a strength for the Cats.

Ohio State -- Ohio State lost corners Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence and safety Jermale Hines. All three could be in the NFL this fall. Rating -- First team. Because of a ridiculous amount of injuries, the Buckeyes are in position to replace a ton of starts with cornerbacks Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke figuring prominently.

Penn State -- With six players returning with starting experience, the Nittany Lions will field a veteran group of defensive backs in the fall. Senior safety Drew Astorino (26 starts) is the most experienced returning player on the roster. Rating -- Second team. The Lions lived through a lot of injuries last season while D'Anton Lynn and Malcolm Willis learned to thrive.

Purdue -- The Boilermakers return three starters including cornerback Ricardo Allen, who earned second-team all-conference last season. Rating -- First team. The Boilers have a ton of experience with CB Josh Johnson and S Logan Link also returning. They also have a ton of alliteration.

Wisconsin -- Cornerback Antonio Fenelus returns. The first-team all-Big Ten pick had four interceptions for the Rose Bowl edition of the Badgers last season. Rating -- Second team. Wisconsin will be looking for a corner and a safety.

   

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