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Assume the Position 2012: Cornerback

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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.

Previously on ATP2k12:
1. Quarterback

Today: Cornerback

Iowa doesn't recruit top-flight cornerbacks; the Hawkeyes haven't landed a consensus four-star defensive back since Jordan Bernstine and Diaunte Morrow signed on in 2007. Despite that fact, Iowa has had three cornerbacks drafted in the last four drafts, with a tried-and-true formula: One to two years in the second corner role, then a year or two as the top guy. The two cornerbacks destined to start 2012 at the top of the depth chart were lightly-regarded Ohio-based recruits, and yet a 2013 NFL Draft pick is a near mortal lock.

The Science Project

Micah Hyde (#18, Senior, 6'1", 190, Fostoria (OH) HS)

Somehow, with little fanfare, Micah Hyde has become arguably the most important player on the Iowa defense and an agent of a fundamental change in Iowa's defensive philosophy. That he's done that while changing positions twice, becoming the defense's most obvious playmaker, and returning punts only reiterates how important he has become.

Hyde came to Iowa as a completely unheralded two-star quarterback/athlete from a school big enough to put him on the radar of the Big Ten's heavyweights (Fostoria plays in the Northern Buckeye Conference, of course) who had never played cornerback before. Iowa was his only BCS-level offer -- all of the Ohio-based MAC schools made offers along with Ball State and Eastern Michigan -- and it came in the last week before Signing Day. On its face, Hyde's offer looked like a typical Ferentz defensive back play: Take a chance on a kid who was ignored by his home state school, take a couple of years to build him into game shape, and see if he attains competence.

There was something different about Hyde, though. It began when he received an invite to the Big 33 game, an annual event pitting all-star teams from Ohio and Pennsylvania against each other that regularly features a who's who of OSU, PSU, and Michigan commits. In August, we received word that Hyde would not redshirt and would, in fact, be expected to contribute as a true freshman despite the fact that Iowa was returning Amari Spievey and Shaun Prater. Hyde played in every game that season, mostly special teams, contributing eight tackles. In 2010, with Spievey gone to the pros, it was Hyde (and not Jordan Bernstine or 2008 recruit Greg Castillo, as we had assumed) who took his spot. It didn't take long to see why. Hyde recorded 82 tackles in 2010 along with seven pass breakups, four interceptions, 142 yards of interception returns, and the two most memorable plays of that campaign: His 66-yard touchdown off a pitch from Tyler Sash and a 74-yard interception return for a touchdown to give Iowa its final lead over Missouri in the Insight Bowl.

Ferentz and his staff clearly saw the potential in Hyde. They responded by moving him to safety in 2011's spring practices, mostly because he was a ballhawk with vision in returning interceptions and there were no safeties left. Hyde also assumed Colin Sandeman's old job as punt returner, likely for the same reasons. Neither worked particularly well: The emergence of Jordan Bernstine and Tanner Miller at safety relieved some of the pressure in the deep zones, and Greg Castillo was making life easy for opposing quarterbacks at Hyde's old position. After a 44-41 loss to Iowa State where Castillo was filleted like a fish by Steele Effing Jantz, Hyde returned to cornerback and never left. As for punt returns, Hyde had some problems catching the ball early in the year and spent the rest of the year calling for a fair catch every time a defender got within twenty yards. All around, it was a confused, difficult season.

Now that Prater's left for the NFL, Hyde is number one with a bullet in what is widely considered the best Iowa secondary since 2008. With Norm Parker retiring and Phil Parker assuming control of the defense, promising fans more man coverage in general, more press/bump coverage from the corners in particular, and more variety across the defense, Hyde will be the test case for whether deviating from "all Cover 2 all the time" is going to be successful. Iowa showed a striking number of blitz packages in the spring scrimmage, with corner blitzing in particular making its first appearance in years. Iowa cornerbacks in 2012 are going to be called on to do things they've never done before. Hyde's going to have to lead the way.

The Apprentice

B.J. Lowery (#19, Junior, 5'11", 188, Hughes HS (Cincinnati, OH))

If Hyde has shown the way for a two-star Ohio defensive back recruit to make it at Iowa, Lowery has begun by following footstep-by-footstep. He was a two-star recruit that jumped to a three-star rating based solely on his Iowa offer, but his only other scholarship came from Akron. He avoided a redshirt and played as a freshman, again mostly on special teams and mop-up duty. He likely would have been the starter opposite Prater in the season opener had he not broken his wrist in fall camp. That injury kept him out through the first week of October; by that point, Hyde had long since returned to cornerback, and he was excess of requirements. His late pass breakup -- okay, pass interference -- sealed Iowa's win over Michigan in early November. Lowery showed he was competent, which was better than most of what Iowa had seen before his return.

As much as the adjustment in Iowa's defensive philosophy might affect Hyde, it's likely to mean even more changes for Lowery. Parker will likely find it far more palatable to leave Hyde, his top cover corner, on an island when necessary. That means Lowery, and not Hyde, will be left to blitz from the corner when called. Further, he's going to have the same target on his back that other inexperienced second corners carry, made doubly so when Iowa goes into man coverage or presses receivers at the line of scrimmage. The staff is clearly confident in his ability: Ferentz did everything but call the race between Lowery and Castillo over by mid-spring, and Lowery took virtually every snap with the first team defense in the spring scrimmage. Lowery will be the starter, and he's going to play a different kind of cornerback than every Iowa corner before him.

The Technician

Greg Castillo (#2, Senior (RS), 5'11", 187, St. Joseph's Prep (Mt. Laurel, NJ))

It's best to start with what we know Castillo isn't: He's not a Big Ten caliber starting cornerback. We learned that in 2009, where he was repeatedly targeted and shredded by Northern Iowa. We learned it again when Steele Effing Jantz beat him like a rented mule in Ames last year. For two years, Castillo has had a starting job on week one; for two years, he's lost that job by week three. Barring injury, it won't happen a third time.

What Castillo is is something that could be quite valuable in the new defensive system: A technically proficient defender who, with proper help from the scheme and opposition across the line of scrimmage, can contribute to this team. Castillo can defend, just not against wideouts in cover 2. Castillo can tackle, but it would be better if it wasn't against the receiver who just ran by him and had to slow up for a bad throw. He's a perfect nickle corner. It just remains to be seen if the new Iowa defense has the need for a nickle corner that the old Iowa defense never had.

While You Wait for the Others

Jordan Lomax (#27, Sophomore, 5'10", 190, DeMatha Catholic (Upper Marlboro, MD))

One of Iowa's recent haul from DeMatha, Lomax is following high school teammates Marcus Coker and Darian Cooper into the two-deep within two years. A three-star recruit, he held offers from Louisville, Maryland, Stanford, and Virginia, but ended up at Iowa and saw the field immediately. Lomax played special teams as a true freshman last year, and is likely Hyde's heir apparent in 2013. He has the athletic ability to break in somewhere -- if Hyde or Lowery go down injured, our money's on Lomax, and not Castillo, to get their playing time -- but for now that place is likely back on kick coverage and mop-up duty.

Torrey Campbell (#22, Freshman (RS), 5'11", 183, Barron Collier (Naples, FL))

Campbell came to Iowa as a man with a lot of offers (at least 12 BCS programs, including Wisconsin, Tennessee, Boston College, OMHR, and West Virginia) but no position. Campbell played defensive back and halfback in high school, and there's already buzz that he might switch back to offense given Iowa's complete lack of running backs. He's listed as a defensive back, though, and he doesn't have the build of the typical Iowa halfback, so our money is on him staying put, playing some special teams, and working his way toward a starting job somewhere in the secondary by 2014 at the latest.

Gavin Smith (#30, Junior (RS), 5'10", 175, Iowa City West HS/Iowa Central C.C.)

Smith, a former West High standout who walked on in spring 2011, shares a number with the most experienced halfback on the roster at the moment. Given the transfer rumors surrounding D'Andre Johnson at all times, it's tough to tell if this fact means more for the future of Smith or of Johnson.