Assume the Position is our offseason guide to the Iowa Hawkeyes football depth chart. The math is difficult, so take it from us: As time moves on, we'll know more. That's why we rank the positions from most certain to least certain.
We've come to the end. Not a moment too soon.
The Starter, Somewhere
Micah Hyde (#18, Junior, 6'1", 185, Fostoria (OH) HS)
Micah Hyde has done something that I honestly can't remember anyone else doing in the last four years of ATP: He's played in all 26 games of his true freshman and sophomore seasons. It would be a great feat by anyone; that it's come from a lightly-recruited two-star high school quarterback who didn't play corner until he hit Iowa City is unreal.
Hyde is one of those Ken O'Keefe Ohio 'athletes': A tall, somewhat gangly dual threat quarterback and safety who was ignored by the big names of the Big Ten, Hyde cashed in a late Iowa offer over those from a handful of MAC schools. Surprisingly, he was receiving public praise from the coaching staff from virtually the moment he stepped on campus. He shirked a redshirt to serve on special teams as a true freshman, then inherited the cornerback spot left open after Amari Spievey jumped to the pros, beating out experienced veterans like Jordan Bernstine in the process.
From there, as James Lipton would say, magic happened. Hyde played the key role in arguably the two most exciting plays of the season, taking a Tyler Sash lateral for a meandering touchdown against Michigan State and following it up by taking his own interception on a tour of Missouri's offensive backfield en route to an Insight Bowl-clinching score. In the meantime, he got picked on. Many of Prater's 68 tackles can be attributed to run support; Hyde's 82 tackles, on the other hand, were coverage issues. It's nothing Iowa hasn't seen before from first-time starters at cornerback, and since Adam Shada there has been marked improvement in year two.
What we haven't seen before is what happens when a starting corner changes to safety. That apparently ends Saturday. It's far from an impossible proposition; in the last four NFL Drafts, three Iowa cornerbacks have been taken. Two of those three -- Charles Godfrey and Amari Spievey -- have been converted to safety, and for good reason. Iowa defensive backs are taught the finer points of solid tackling and the overarching doctrine of keeping the play contained. At other programs, that's a safety. Hyde's a ball hawk and a proven playmaker with the football in his hands. This is for the best, even if it means we get the Greg Castillo Experience at corner. Hyde's your new free safety, come hell or high water.
Collin Sleeper (#16, Junior (RS), 6'2", 200, Solon (IA) HS)
We know absolutely nothing about Collin Sleeper.
It's not that we know absolutely nothing. It's that we know exactly what we're supposed to know. He's a junior walk-on from Solon who has never played a down of college football and is now the starting strong safety. He was completely unrecruited and unscouted by the services. According to him, he's fast. He played halfback for the James Morris-led Iowa high school juggernaut 10 miles up the road from Iowa City. He reportedly played Denard Robinson on the scout team last year. His name is Sleeper, for chrissake.
Sleeper isn't the first walk-on to play safety at Iowa. Brett Greenwood was a four-year starter at free safety after walking on. Sean Considine spent three years as a starter after walking on, as well. The difference here is that Sleeper will be playing strong safety. At Iowa, that's not as big a change in roles as in other defensive schemes, but it still mandates responsibilities not assumed by Greenwood and Considine before him. We have faith, of course; it's the Parkers, after all. But that doesn't mean we aren't terrified.
Jordan Bernstine (#4, Senior (RS), 5'11", 205,
Roosevelt Lincoln HS (Des Moines, IA))
We've reached the end of the line for Jordan Bernstine, a player who appears destined to enter the Dan Doering What Might Have Been Hall of Fame. At the time Bernstine signed with Iowa, he was the most highly-acclaimed in-state recruit in nearly a decade, a Parade high school all-American who played safety, running back, and punter for a Des Moines doormat that he turned into a contender with the help of the unheralded Adam Robinson. He turned down offers from Nebraska, Texas A&M, UCLA, and Pitt, and arrived in Iowa City in 2007 with as much hype as any player Ferentz has ever landed.
Despite playing safety in high school, Bernstine was moved to cornerback upon arrival. He played as a freshman, mostly on special teams, and recorded nine tackles and a pair of kick returns. In 2008, he was expected to compete for a starting spot but underwent shoulder surgery, missed spring practice, and was passed by Bradley Fletcher and Amari Spievey in August (to be fair, those were two third-round NFL Draft picks). He picked up a dozen tackles in spot duty. In 2009, he was expected to compete for a starting spot but broke his ankle early in August practice, redshirted, and was passed by Shaun Prater. In 2010, he was expected to compete for a starting spot was was dinged up in camp and passed by Micah Hyde. By the end of a four-tackle season, Bernstine had been moved to safety and played in nickle coverage. He was one of the rhabdo 13 in January and, of course, missed spring practice. And now he's behind Collin Sleeper, who nobody had ever heard of until two weeks ago.
Yesterday, Kirk Ferentz said there's still a chance Bernstine could start at strong safety, and he's in the running for a kick return job. We're openly hoping both of those things happen. Nothing against Sleeper or the other contenders, but Bernstine has been through the gauntlet at Iowa, has never said a word crosswise about his five years here, and keeps playing as hard as he can despite a complete lack of carrots and a never-ending run of metaphysical sticks.
While You Wait for the Others
Tanner Miller (#5, Sophomore, 6'2", 201, Mid-Prairie HS (Kalona, IA))
Miller was a Northern Iowa verbal and late Iowa offeree in 2009 as one of those annual in-state kids who have a standing grayshirt offer converted to full scholarship by late roster moves. He received two stars from Scout and Rivals, basically an obligatory rating for a recruit with an Iowa offer. That Iowa would offer a scholarship to an unheralded safety (and basically only safety) recruit from Kalona was a bit surprising. That he would play as a true freshman was much more. Miller grew into a safety role over the course of the season, and saw significant action in the Insight Bowl. The decision to move Micah Hyde to free safety, the role Miller was set to inherit, raises some concerns, but the staff remains high on Miller. Expect spot duty and special teams for Miller in 2011.
Jack Swanson (#40, Junior (RS), 5'11", 200, Naples (FL) HS)
Swanson has gone from prohibitive free safety favorite to off the depth chart in 8 months. The two-star recruit from Naples look destined to take over for Brett Greenwood last year, but the Micah Hyde move and Tanner Miller development has left him on the outside looking in. He's far from out of the mix, but it's reasonable to assume he's behind Hyde, Miller, and quite possibly Bernstine at free safety. Probably a special teamer unless the plague breaks out.
Tom Donatell (#13, Senior (RS), 6'2", 205, Peachtree Ridge HS (Atlanta, GA))
Donatell joined the Hawkeyes in 2007 as a walk-on quarterback. He redshirted, moved to linebacker, moved again to defensive back, and finally saw the field in 2010 in mop-up duty. We're certainly glad he's getting a chance to play; a walk-on who gave up the dream as a quarterback and changed positions twice has sacrificed greatly for the program and deserves a shot. We're just not convinced he's really in the plans in 2011 beyond special teams.
Jordan Lomax (#27, Freshman, 5'10", 185, DeMatha Catholic HS (Upper Marlboro, MD))
In past years, Lomax might be a prime target for a redshirt, but the three-star recruit from Iowa's newest recruiting pipeline comes with enough size, speed, and hype to compete in 2011. Lomax had initially been a verbal commit to Virginia (with standing offers from Stanford, Maryland, Louisville, and New Mexico) but had second thoughts last winter. He eventually made the decision to follow his friend Nico Law to Iowa. A couple of things to remember: That Stanford offer means there shouldn't be any academic issues with the transition, and that Mike Locksley offer from UNM means the kid can play. Don't be surprised when you see him on special teams Saturday.