Two days ago, we found out that Shaun Prater was returning to Iowa for his senior year. Yesterday, the other shoe dropped and we found out that Marvin McNutt was also returning to Iowa -- but that fellow redshirt junior (and three-year starter at SS) Tyler Sash was saying "see ya" to Iowa City and heading to the NFL. Given Iowa's precarious depth at all three of the positions occupied by those guys, losing any of them is a blow to next year's team.
Sash arrived at Iowa as part of the 2007 recruiting class, the same class that also brought us Christian Ballard, Jordan Bernstine, Bryan Bulaga, Mike Daniels, Adam Gettis, Marvin McNutt, Tyler Nielsen, Allen Reisner, Colin Sandeman, and Marcus Zusevics (among others). Along with the 2006 class, the '07 group helped form the core of the team that Iowa fielded over the past few years. Sash arrived as a lightly-heralded 3* safety recruit -- Rivals wasn't even sure where he'd play and tagged him with the "ATH" label. He wasn't one of the three most highly-regarded defensive back recruits Iowa landed in that '07 class -- Cedric Everson, Jordan Bernstine, and Diauntae Morrow were far more buzzed-about. Hell, even 2* CB Abe Satterfield was talked up more as the next potential Erie, PA diamond in the rough (see: Bob Sanders, Ed Hinkel) unearthed by the Iowa staff. There was little reason to suspect that Sash would become a three-year starter or that he would challenge Iowa's career interception record or become arguably Iowa's most decorated safety since Bob Sanders (or at least Sean Considine).
But real life is more mercurial than the recruiting reports could ever indicate and things happened that opened up a path to the starting lineup for Sash -- and made him easily the most productive member of that defensive back class. Everson and Satterfield were gone from the team almost as soon as they'd joined it after a profoundly ugly sexual assault event in the fall of 2007. Bernstine picked up a knack for getting hit with injuries at the worst possible times -- during fall camp, when he was on the verge of landing a starting job. Morrow was slotted into the free safety position but couldn't unseat EPIC GREENWOOD and eventually transferred to Toledo in search of more playing time.
Sash redshirted in 2007 and there was little buzz about him entering the 2008 season. Indeed, the safety tandem in 2008 was expected to be the same duo that had played most of 2007 -- Brett Greenwood at free safety and Harold Dalton at strong safety. Morrow's lofty star ranking wasn't enough to enable him to get past Greenwood's scrappy walk-on past and the idea of a redshirt freshman like Sash unseating a senior and second-year starter like Dalton seemed ludicrous -- even if Dalton wasn't actually very good in coverage and he tackled like a blind flag football player. Upperclassmen at Iowa almost never lose their starting spots because of poor performance. But Dalton did; after another ho-hum performance to start the season against Maine, an unknown kid named Tyler Sash got the starting nod against Florida International the next week -- and he never looked back. Aside from a few injury-induced absences, Sash went on to start every game from that point and was one of the key cogs in transforming the Iowa secondary into one of the most feared units in the Big Ten. Granted, it helped to have cornerbacks like Bradley Fletcher and Amari Spievey playing at an extraordinarily high level and to have linebackers that were as adept in pass coverage as A.J. Edds and Pat Angerer, but Sash (and his partner-in-crime Greenwood) wasn't chopped liver. He displayed great ball-hawking skills almost immediately (he got an interception in his second career start against Iowa State) and while he was never a big hitter, he was also a solid run-stopper.
The legend of Sash really began in the Penn State game that year, when he snared an errant armpunt from Darryl Clark to kickstart the game-winning drive that would transform Iowa's football fortunes and turn Daniel Murray into both one of the most beloved figures in Johnson County and one of the most reviled figures in Happy Valley. He added three more picks before the season ended, giving him five for the year and firmly establishing his big play bona fides. If 2008 was good, in 2009 Sash turned it up to 11. He grabbed not one, not two, but three armpunts from Austen Arnaud in Ames, helping pave the way for Iowa's most lopsided victory over ISU in over a decade. That game also spawned one of the greatest memes in the history of BHGP, for which we are forever thankful:
(As always, a big thank you to HawkeyeRecon for making that image.)
But the highlight of his season (and possibly his entire Iowa career) came during the Indiana game, when his improbable/stunning/miraculous 86-yard interception return for a touchdown (the "pinball pick-six") helped Iowa turn around a 21-7 deficit and record an astonishing win. If that play is what defines Sash's legacy at Iowa, it's hard to find fault with that since it's a perfect embodiment of what made him so special: his uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, his great hands, and his phenomenal runback ability (for his career he had 392 yards on interception returns, an Iowa all-time record). 2010 was a disappointing year for Sash, as it was for basically every returning starter on Iowa's defense, although he still managed to provide a little magic when he hooked up with Micah Hyde to produce this jaw-dropping defensive play against Michigan State:
In hindsight, it wasn't much of a surprise that Sash opted to head to the NFL now. He'll be 23 in May; if he'd come back for his senior year he would have been 24 before he'd even played a snap in the NFL. Given the short-timer nature of most NFL careers (and especially those in hard-hitting positions like safety) and Sash's own injury history (he's had multiple shoulder surgeries), it makes perfect sense that he'd decide to strike while the iron is hot. There probably wasn't much Sash could do to improve his draft stock next year, either; he already has three phenomenally productive years on the books at Iowa and his athleticism is what it is -- he's not going to get any bigger or faster. There are areas he needs to improve -- a technique issue here, a coverage skill there -- but that can be learned in the NFL. So godspeed and good luck, Tyler. We'll miss seeing you pluck passes out of the sky and start galloping down the field with them, but we understand the desire to head out for greener pastures.
So what does this mean for Iowa's defensive backfield next year? With Prater's return and Sash's departure, Iowa will have a pair of experienced cornerbacks and two wildly inexperienced safeties. The last time we had a situation like that was probably 2007; let's hope the newbies in 2011 are a bit better than Greenwood and Dalton were that year. Based on the last depth chart, the early favorites to start would seem to be Tanner Miller (who actually did replace Brett Greenwood for a few plays in the Insight Bowl when ol' EPIC went down with injury) and Tom Donatell. Other possibilties would be Nick Nielsen and Jordan Bernstine -- and, hell, possibly even incoming recruit Nico Law. Of that bunch, Bernstine is the most intriguing prospect to replace Sash. There's long been chatter that he's better-suited to play safety than corner and he's a tremendous athlete with excellent speed. He also loves to hit, if the cameo appearances he's made on special teams or in nickel situations the past few years are any indication. It's hard to say if he has as much of a nose for the ball as Sash -- he only has one career interception, but he's also played very limited minutes as a defensive back -- but if he can stay healthy this year (a big "if," considering he's the most injury-prone Hawkeye since Moeaki) he could be a very pleasant surprise at safety next year.