You know the drill: Every Thursday from now until mid-August, BHGP breaks down the depth chart, position by position, from most certain to least certain.
Tyler Sash (#9, Junior, 6'1", 210, Oskaloosa, IA)
Thirteen starts in 2009, and 21 in a row overall. Eighty-five tackles, five and a half for loss. Six interceptions with 203 return yards, including an inexplicable play wherein he grabbed a bouncing Plinko chip and ran it 86 yards for a touchdown to keep Iowa in shouting distance of Indiana. Six pass breakups. Two forced fumbles. One dog. One American flag bandana. One JPEG. Consensus first team all-conference. AP third team all-American. Yes, it was a big 2009 for the Jimmer-Jammer, and it follows a big 2008. Sash's first two years as starting strong safety were so significant, in fact, that we're forced to ask the question: Can Sash be the best Iowa strong safety of the Ferentz era? Can he better Bob Sanders?
Now, mind you, it's a wholly unfair question; they are completely different players with different skill sets. Sanders was a natural in run support; Sash's pass instincts are nonpareil. Sanders was a heavy hitter; Sash is a sure tackler but better at playing the ball. And we're not asking if Sash is already better than Sanders, because he's not; while Bob was good as an underclassman, his true metamorphosis into human guided missile wasn't complete until midway through his sophomore year, and Sash has some way to go to match (in particular) Sanders' junior season. But through two years, their numbers are comparable: Sanders holds an edge in tackles, but Sash has more interceptions in two years than Sanders had in four. They are oddly similar in tackles for loss (where one would think Sanders would dominate) and pass breakups (where Sash would likely have an edge). Sanders didn't have the same injury problems in college that have recently plagued him, but there's no denying Sash's edge in durability (although he has now missed two consecutive springs with shoulder issues). If Sash stays healthy and takes another step forward this season, it will be time to ask the question.
The Epic One
Brett Greenwood (#30, Senior, 6'0", 200, Bettendorf, IA)
It's not that we were wrong about Brett Greenwood. Really, it's not.
Greenwood entered the program as a walk-on in 2006 and stunned us all when he was named starting free safety six games into the 2007 season. A game-killing end zone interception in his second game as a starter finished off Illinois and announced Greenwood's intentions to the world. The remainder of the freshman campaign went forward without an event of note.
Greenwood's sophomore season? It was where EPIC GREENWOOD was born, as the safety was clearly the weak link in an otherwise stout defense, and offensive coordinators fitted him with a bullseye. Both Indiana and Pittsburgh exploited his limitations to great success, and if Dave Wannstedt and Bill Lynch can figure it out, anybody can. Greenwood recorded a career high in tackles that year, and it wasn't because he was focused on stopping the run. As 2009 opened, we were skeptical:
Greenwood's problem is not a lack of effort; you don't walk onto a BCS-conference program and start as a redshirt freshman unless you (1) went unnoticed because you played your high school ball in Gabon, or (2) worked your ass off. Nobody questions his commitment. It's just that, in Iowa's defense, a safety has to be in ideal position, tackle well, and stop the run. Too often, Greenwood doesn't.
And so what did Brett Greenwood do in 2009? He improved his positioning, improved his tackling, and even helped out against the run. He was far from a ballhawk; of his three interceptions, two came gift wrapped from Austen Arnaud. But Greenwood was in far better position to play the pass (seven breakups), he exhibited better instincts against the run, and he coupled both developments with far surer tackling. He wasn't yet a star, but he was no longer a weak link in an Iowa defense that was competent-to-unreal across the board.
It's not that we were wrong about Brett Greenwood. It's just that...OK, we might have been a little wrong. Good play, old chap. Now once more into the breach.
While You Wait for the Others
Lance Tillison (#18, Senior, 6'2", 215, Seffner, FL)
Lost in the injury and depth chart news from spring was the apparent return of Lance Tillison, one-time heir to the strong safety throne and 2009 program departee. Heading into 2008, Tillison was in the mix with Harold Dalton and Tyler Sash for a starting spot and heralded by yours truly as a high-level player who slipped through the cracks after Katrina forced him to transfer to a Florida high school days before the start of his senior season. Well, Sash won the spot, and Tillison left the team, and we thought that book was closed. And then Tillison somehow showed up this spring with no explanation given (at least not one that I've seen), and the prodigal safety could be in the mix for some playing time during his final season.
Tom Donatell (#13, Junior, 6'2", 205, Atlanta, GA)
The former walk-on, former quarterback, former linebacker has finally found a home on the Iowa depth chart, at least for the moment. Donatell chose to walk on at Iowa over Auburn and some Division II scholarship offers after missing his senior season with a torn ACL. He entered ostensibly as a quarterback, but had moved to the other side of the ball by the time his grayshirt year had finished. He played safety in high school, and the Iowa track record for walk-ons at safety is excellent, but Donatell won't see more than special teams duty unless Tyler Sash is out, and that's not even funny in an interesting way.
Nick Nielsen (#29, Sophomore, 6'3", 210, Humboldt, IA)
The younger brother of prohibitive starting strongside linebacker Tyler Nielsen switched numbers this spring for reasons unknown. Nielsen is another grayshirt, accepting an offer to join his brother in Iowa City (the "Reverse Derby" to the uninitiated) and has slowly moved his way up the depth chart, now co-backup free safety after seeing limited special teams action late last season. He fits the typical Iowa profile: Former high school quarterback, big numbers as a high school linebacker, good height/frame, spent a year with the strength team, etc., etc.
Jack Swanson (#40, Sophomore, 5'11", 205, Naples, FL)
Unlike everyone listed ahead of him at free safety, Swanson came to Iowa with a scholarship in hand. Like all the rest, though, he is stuck behind the entrenched starters for at least the next year. Swanson chose Iowa over offers from Purdue and Florida International, then added 15 pounds in his redshirt year. His physical growth plateaued last season, though, and while not undersized, Swanson is smaller than the other free safety options both this year and next. He has more experience than his competition, in that he has actually played and recorded a handful of tackles, but it's not the kind of experience that gives him a significant advantage. Still the prohibitive favorite for 2011.