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.
Unlike the six positions before it on this year's list, cornerback actually returns two starters. In fact, if you're willing to ignore spring practice, you can make the case for cornerback topping the 2011 ATP list.
The depth chart, both here and at safety, comes down to that axiom of all Iowa football axioms: Get the best eleven players on the field in as good a position as possible. That leaves us with a defensive backfield with two returning starting cornerbacks. It's almost certain both won't be on the edges this year, though.
The Next Man In
Shaun Prater (#28, Senior, 5'11", 180, Central HS (Omaha, NE))
Charles Godfrey: Two years as starting cornerback. One year as unquestionable top dog. Third round draft pick.
Bradley Fletcher: Two years as starting cornerback. One year as unquestionable top dog. Third round draft pick.
Amari Spievey: Two years as starting cornerback. One year as unquestionable top dog. Third round draft pick.
Shaun Prater: Two years as starting cornerback. One year as unquestionable top dog. And he's back. So what happens now?
There is remarkably little to say about Prater. Since taking a starting spot at the beginning of 2009 (after a two-game suspension for an offseason DUI), he's been as consistent a player as Iowa has fielded. He followed his solid sophomore campaign (41 tackles, 2 interceptions, 8 breakups) with marked improvement as a junior (68 tackles, 4 interceptions, 6 breakups, 1 TFL, 1 fumble recovery). In particular, Prater became a far better run defender in 2010. He also found an uncanny knack for making big plays at opportune times. He recovered a fourth-quarter fumble against Arizona that ignited Iowa's fourth-quarter rally. He returned a late interception for a touchdown to finish off Penn State. He picked off another pass in the second quarter of Iowa's blowout victory over Michigan State, turning what little momentum MSU had built over a 13-play drive. His fourth quarter pickoff of Terrelle Pryor led to a go-ahead touchdown.
After playing footsie with a jump to the pros, Prater returns for one more season. And while the return is wise -- his numbers and measurables are good but not spectacular, he has been in college just three years, and he projected in day three of the draft at best -- there isn't a whole lot more for Prater to do at this level. He could raise his interception totals, but teams will again throw to the opposite side of the field, especially if there's a first-time starter. Any improvement in tackles is only evidence of completed passes or massive gaps in the run defense and underneath zone coverage. He'll have plenty of opportunity to lead the defensive secondary and prepare for the pros. It's his contract year.
Greg Castillo (#2, Junior (RS), 5'11", 180, St. Joseph's Prep of Philadelphia (Mt. Laurel, NJ))
In four years of writing ATP, there have been few players quite as confounding as Greg Castillo.
On its face, the Greg Castillo story shouldn't really work. As a high school senior, Castillo was lightly recruited by everyone. His offer sheet definitely included Delaware and Villanova, and might have included offers from Ohio, Bowling Green, and BYU, depending on who you asked. The universal two-star "athlete" was a 'Nova commit until the hours before Signing Day, when a late shift in the recruiting winds left an extra offer open at Iowa. Castillo snapped it up, and was one of the final recruits in the Hawkeyes' class of 2008. He was certainly a project, and a difficult one at that; it is presumably much easier for the S&C staff to take a talented linebacker and add muscle and mass over the course of a redshirt season than it is to take a corner and make him a better corner.
Castillo was a classic "intangibles" recruit: He's the son of the then-Philadelphia Eagles offensive line coach (and now-Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator) Juan Castillo, and it's safe to say he wouldn't have been on Iowa's radar if it hadn't been for Ferentz's NFL connections. Initially, all signs pointed to the long shot paying off. Castillo redshirted through the 2008 season, then inexplicably won the starting cornerback job opposite Amari Spievey for the 2009 season opener against UNI. He was victimized by Northern Iowa that day, though, and was eventually removed (and missed the next few weeks) due to injury. He never really saw the field again until the next August, when Castillo again won the starting spot for the season opener. He performed much better against Eastern Illinois but nevertheless was passed again, this time by Micah Hyde. Castillo functioned as the de facto nickleback in a defense that didn't really play nickle coverage.
Hyde has now moved to safety, again leaving an open spot at cornerback, and again Castillo enters August as the presumed starter (last week's Media Day depth chart listed Castillo as the starting right cornerback). And yet, again, Castillo has the competition nipping at his heels. He'll most likely start the opener, but if the last two years are any indication, that might be as far as it gets.
The Garage Sale Find
B.J. Lowery (#19, Sophomore, 5'11", 180, Hughes HS (Cincinnati, OH))
We already discussed the long line of Iowa defensive backs to make the NFL in the Shaun Prater section. Here is part two of that analysis: Their recruiting profiles.
Charles Godfrey: 2* Rivals, 2* Scout, offers from Mizzou and Pitt
Bradley Fletcher: 2* Rivals, 2* Scout, quite literally no other offers
Amari Spievey: 2* Rivals, 2* Scout, offer from Rutgers. Ignored by homestate school (UConn) because he didn't attend their summer camps
Shaun Prater: 3* Rivals, 3* Scout, due in no small part to a Nebraska offer. Also held offers from ISU and Ohio.
Iowa has killed with lightly-recruited cornerbacks in the last decade. Contrast that with the highly-sought after recruits Iowa has landed in the last ten years.
Cedric Everson: 4* Rivals, 4* Scout, offers from PSU, MSU, UCLA, Miami, Minnesota, etc. We all know what happened.
Jordan Bernstine: 4* Rivals, 4* Scout, offers from Nebraska, Pitt, UCLA, and Texas A&M. See below.
...and, well, that's about it. Iowa doesn't pursue top-notch cornerbacks (or, more precisely, when they do, they don't land them). Instead, they keep hitting the jackpot with overlooked two-stars who blossom into defensive backs coveted by the NFL. It's for good reason; Iowa places such emphasis on zone coverage and tackling that corners fit well into pro defensive systems (it's also the reason that Spievey and Godfrey were drafted as corners and now play safety). Which brings us to B.J. Lowery, Iowa's next under-the-radar cornerback turned superstar. Lowery was completely overlooked, receiving his third star from Rivals and Scout only after committing to the Hawkeyes and holding one other offer from Akron. None of that really mattered, as Lowery shirked a redshirt and picked up some special teams/specialized coverage time as a true freshman to rave reviews from the coaching staff. Norm Parker spent the spring traveling the I-Club circuit talking up his newest defensive back find. Frankly, we were surprised he wasn't listed as the presumed starter last week, and we'd be shocked if he wasn't there by October.
While You Wait for the Others
Jordan Bernstine (#4, Senior (RS), 5'11", 205, Lincoln HS (Des Moines))
This didn't work out. Jordan Bernstine was the biggest in-state get for Kirk Ferentz since Blake Larsen when he committed to Iowa over his myriad other offers. He played as a true freshman in an era where that didn't happen too often. Adam Robinson was brought in to give Bernstine a high school friend on the team (ironically, as it turned out Robinson would be a far greater contributor). He was supposed to be in the mix in 2008, only to lose out to Fletcher and Spievey. In 2009, he broke his ankle, opening the door for Shaun Prater (then a true sophomore). In 2010, he ostensibly had a chance at a corner spot but was behind Castillo and Micah Hyde from the start. Now it's 2011, and Bernstine has had five years in the program, and he opens spring behind the one immovable object on the defensive depth chart. Nope. This didn't work out.
Willie Lowe (#10, Senior, 5'10", 175, Glenville HS (Cleveland, OH))
Wherefore art thou, Willie Lowe? WIllie always caught the bad break. He was always shuffling between safety, where he was buried behind Sash and Greenwood, and corner, where he was buried behind underclassmen. Ever the good soldier, Lowe never said a word and kept pushing forward. He got dinged up during the last half of 2010 and didn't see the field in the last four games of the season, including the bowl win. He then fell victim to the rhabdo and, after a couple of weeks of spring ball where he reportedly couldn't participate in a meaningful way due to the after-effects, decided to leave the team. That doesn't mean he's going anywhere else, mind you; Lowe is reportedly registered for classes at Iowa and could return to the team if he wishes. It's not looking likely this year, though.
Nico Law (Number unknown, Freshman, 6'3", 190, Bishop McNamara HS (Forestville, MD))
Nico Law, how you do? Because while Nico Law (3* Rivals, 4* Scout) was ostensibly recruited as a safety, the sheer dearth of options at cornerback may force him into the lineup earlier than expected. On its face, fellow freshman Jordan Lomax looks more cornerback-ish, but the staff has already telegraphed that Law most likely won't be redshirting with no such indication about Lomax. Let's just hope his internet radio show survives, as well.
Jordan Price (#26, Freshman (RS), 5'9", 175, Eden Prairie (MN) HS)
He's a walk-on from Minnesota who will almost certainly not play this season, but if you really think we're going to get out of ATP without mention of a walk-on from Minnesota with blonde dreadlocks, you don't know us too well. Given that he's from Eden Prairie, I feel like he deserves a Craig Finn lyric in his honor, something like "There was this kid named Jordan Price/and he seemed really nice/he had dreads/and he dreaded/Holly and her friends on those druggy nights"