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Assume the Position 2012: Safety

This is Jordan Bernstine.  He graduated.  You don't want to see the picture of the guy who is coming back.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
This is Jordan Bernstine. He graduated. You don't want to see the picture of the guy who is coming back. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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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
2. Cornerback
3. Tight End

Today: Safety

Safety has been both a source of strength and an afterthought in the Iowa defense over the last decade. Bowen, Sanders, Considine, Sash: These are serious players who have made incredible contributions. Last year was a transition, with the graduation of both starters and the promotion of a couple of unproven backups. One survived, bloodied and bruised. The other has been swallowed by the depth chart. 2011 was a case study in what happens when you run Cover 2 and your safeties aren't completely sure of their responsibilities. If it repeats in 2012, it's going to be a long year.

Epic Miller

FS: Tanner Miller (#5, Junior, 6'2", 200, Mid-Prairie HS (Kalona, IA))

There was a moment last year where you yelled at Shaun Prater. I know this because there were plenty of opportunities. Today's hypothesis: The lion's share of those mistakes were not (or at least not originally) the fault of Prater, but of his safety cover. That safety cover was almost exclusively Miller, and those problems put Miller in the same class as his predecessor, Brett Greenwood.

2011 wasn't supposed to be Miller's year. With four returning upperclassmen at cornerback and zero experience at safety, Ferentz elected to move Micah Hyde to free safety opposite Jordan Bernstine. After Iowa State thoroughly embarrassed the secondary by following the simple formula of (1) finding Greg Castillo and (2) throwing at Greg Castillo, Iowa shifted Hyde back to cornerback and promoted Miller to starter. Miller never left, starting Iowa's last eleven games and recording 76 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 3 breakups. Miller was solid in run support, but his dedication to the run often left Prater without deep help down the sideline, as he was required to provide within Iowa's scheme. Play action was his kryptonite, and the deep ball his punishment.

Contrast this with Brett Greenwood, who rose under similar circumstances (redshirt freshman walk-on, ascended to the top spot a bit prematurely) and struggled with the same aspects of the game (rarely in proper position against the pass), though Greenwood compounded it by being a less-than-sure tackler. It took Greenwood two years as a starter before he worked out his problems and became an asset to the Iowa defense. The hope is that Miller makes that move in year two, because all talk of man coverage and new schemes and increased aggression at the corner has to be predicated on safety help that must be there. If it's not, Iowa's defense could crumble in front of him. Epic, indeed.

Law and Order

SS: Nico Law (#21, Sophomore, 6'1", 195, Bishop McNamara HS (Clinton, MD))

When we first started The Hawkeye Compulsion in 2007, we didn't really cover recruiting (caring is creepy, etc.) but made an exception for Tony Cornelius, a defensive back out of Florida, who committed to Iowa and then gave us what you would call "the full D'Angelo". Needless to say, he ended up at Temple. But not even Cornelius's hacked cell phone moment would draw the Ferentz ire quite like a recruit fully embracing the world wide web, twittering with fans, and hosting an internet radio show where he talked with fellow recruits and one fan who clearly had no idea what he was talking about. And yet, despite doing all of these things after committing to Iowa last fall, Nico Law is not just a member of the team but a starter on day one of his second season.

Law is a Darrell Wilson recruit from Iowa's new mid-Atlantic pipeline. He received four stars from Scout, three from Rivals, and offers from a decent cross-section of the ACC, Big East, and Big Ten. Law committed to Iowa on November 1, and spent the next three months trying to get every player within a hundred miles of Washington DC to do the same (and was somewhat successful). He played as a true freshman, mostly on special teams, and recorded a handful of tackles in the process. Law walked into spring practice with the top depth chart line at strong safety in his grasp; he wrote his name in pen by lighting mofos up and showing speed rare for an Iowa safety. Barring injury or disciplinary issues, he's the starter for good. Just don't restart that radio show, Nico.

While You Wait for the Others

Collin Sleeper (#10, Senior (RS), 6'2", 200, Solon (IA) HS)

Sleeper entered last season as the starter at strong safety, the thought apparently being that anyone could play the position and keep the defense on its proper course. That was quickly jettisoned when Iowa State's strategy clearly became to wait until Sleeper and Castillo were on the same side of the field and then run everyone at them. Iowa State scored 44 points that day, and Sleeper's hold on the strong safety spot was released. He's a walk-on, and he's a contributor in his fifth season, and I'm not going to go after a guy who has done those two things, but it's probably best for everyone if he remains a serviceable backup at this point.

Tom Donatell (#13, Senior (RS), 6'2", 205, Peachtree Ridge HS (Duluth, GA))

Speaking of walk-ons, we've finally reached the end of the line for the quixotic career of Tom Donatell, Southern gentleman and international man of many positions. Donatell came to Iowa as a quarterback in 2008, moved to defensive back in 2009, briefly returned to the quarterbacks later that year when Stanzi's sprained ankle left the Hawkeyes woefully light, became a linebacker in 2011, and is now back at safety for his fifth and final season. He left spring listed as co-second team strong safety, and could certainly get some time this year. At this point, he deserves a few tackles, an interception or two, and a plaque for being the most dedicated non-Iowa-raised walk-on ever.

Jack Swanson (#40, Senior (RS), 5'11", 200, Naples (FL) HS)

Swanson just never made it happen, but there was a lot about Swanson that never made much sense. He got a really early offer from Iowa, despite not being in-state (he was a total Kaczenski Special) and not having any real buzz. Swanson committed quickly, and nobody else really came calling. Since then, he's recorded twelve tackles (five as a freshman, five as a sophomore, two as a junior) and been passed up by just about everyone. He's quick, and he's received some positive reinforcement from the coaches, but he's nearly certain to finish his career at Iowa without a consistent starting position. He just never made it happen.

John Lowdermilk (#48, Sophomore, 6'2", 205, Carrollton HS (Kensington, OH))

Lowdermilk was recruited ostensibly as a linebacker, but didn't put on any weight in his first year and finds himself in the defensive backfield. Obviously, there's something to like here; he played sparingly as a true freshman despite garnering only two stars from the recruiting analysts, and he's already climbed into the safety depth chart. This probably isn't the year for him: The coaches are apparently sold on Miller, and should they change their mind, the fix isn't with a true sophomore who hasn't really played the position before. With that said, he's on the fast track to that job sooner rather than later.