Maybe Tanner Miller was the James Vandenberg of the Iowa defense.
In 2011, Vandenberg had the fourth best season in Iowa QB history, throwing for 3,022 yards and 25 TDs. A new offensive coordinator arrived along with a new offense. Vandenberg got caught in the transition and threw for seven TD passes, the fewest for an Iowa team since six in 1999.
Miller, (6-2, 207) had a solid sophomore season. He finished fourth on the team in tackles. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions, including the highlight of his season, a 98-yard INT return for a TD against Northwestern. He showed some strike in run support (three tackles for loss) and also had three pass breakups.
Last season, former Iowa assistant coach Darrell Wilson slid over to the secondary from linebackers. Phil Parker, Iowa’s secondary coach for 13 seasons, moved into the defensive coordinator position.
Miller had clean stretches of football (a few of his numbers dropped, but not hugely), but never seemed to find a comfort level. The performance at safety sagged and bottomed out at Michigan. This didn’t escape Parker’s view.
“One thing about it is, I don’t mind guys getting beat if they’re contested, the plays are contested,” Parker said. “You look at how many big plays we gave up, compared to the year before, years in the past. Very similar numbers. Just probably some of them are a little bit uncontested for running free.
“I think a year of experience has done them some good, understanding the system, getting familiar with it. Tanner has done a better job of staying focused, trying to be a leader back in the secondary.”
Key 2012 factor: How was the Iowa secondary different in ’12 than ’11? Iowa had two NFL-level corners in 2011 (Micah Hyde, Shaun Prater). Last season, Hyde was there, but the other spot had some change with B.J. Lowery suffering a high-ankle sprain against Central Michigan. Probably not a factor in safety play. The safeties in ’11 were, for the most part, Miller and Jordan Bernstine, who was drafted by the Washington Redskins. So, 3/4 of the Iowa secondary in ’11 was drafted into the NFL.
Last season, strong safety was a revolving door. Tommy Donatell had it. Nico Law had it. Now, John Lowdermilk is in the race with Law for starter. There is a “Batman and Robin” nature to Iowa’s safety play. Obviously, that was elusive.
Offseason factor: From all reports, Miller is leading. Through winter workouts and spring practice, he’s been gung ho and setting a pace. Miller is a senior. His career has whooshed by. Seniors tend to lock in and play their best football (DE Joe Gaglione is an example). Miller is in this category, depending what happens this season, obviously.
I’ve been asked a few times what the impact of Phil Parker’s return to the secondary will be. The flashpoint of this should be Miller. Parker moved nearly a dozen Iowa defensive backs into the NFL during his 13 seasons as secondary coach.
Competition: There really isn’t any. Redshirt freshman Anthony Gair was moved to free safety after spring practice. How interchangeable are Iowa’s safety positions? Not very. Off the top of my head, I don’t remember anyone switching positions during the season. Gair is the backup, that’s it. Incoming freshman Solomon Warfield probably is a free safety. Redshirt freshman Greg Mabin moved from WR to free safety before spring practice. He’s probably a year away from playing time. Redshirt freshman Ruben Lile is 6-3, which is classic free safety sort of range and size, but he’s listed as No. 3 strong safety right now.
Why No. 22?: If Miller moves the needle upward this season, he’s rated too low here. Free safety makes calls for the secondary. His job is hugely important. He needs to show it consistently this season. Miller was No. 13 on this list last season. Iowa needs him at that level again.
Outlook: Miller has a lot going in his favor this season. He’s a motivated senior who wants to maximize his final season in college. His new-old position coach is in place. The message from Parker will be straight forward and one Miller has heard before. Parker mentioned “staying focused” in regard to Miller. That shouldn’t/can’t be a problem for a senior.
This spring, Miller’s game was sharp. His drops when Iowa was in man coverage were deep enough. He seemed to “see” the game much better than last season, not jumping on under routes and reading the QB’s eyes. This could be a product of Parker making the game a simple set of reads and allowing Miller to unlock and actually play.