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Assume the Position 2013: Safety

It's gonna be epic.

Matthew Holst

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 Assume the Position 2013:

1. Tight End
2. Linebacker
3. Running Back
4. Defensive Tackle
Offensive line
7. Quarterback

Today: Safety

I'll be honest: Safety could have been written in late June. We knew as much about the position -- one certain starter, a two-man race at the other spot -- as we knew at defensive tackle or cornerback. But we were hoping that the strong safety battle would resolve itself and., more importantly, the optimism of late August would keep us from being brutally critical of the returning starter.

Mission accomplished.

Epic Miller

Tanner Miller (#5, Senior, 6'2, 207 lbs., Mid-Prairie HS (Kalona, IA))

As a matter of course, I don't try to disagree with Morehouse on Iowa football. It's generally a futile exercise. But I do have to take exception to the idea that Tanner Miller had a solid sophomore season. Sure, he had a bunch of tackles, but that's not a good thing for a free safety. Tackles for a free safety mean catches for opposing receivers in positions where the safety -- who is at least supposed to be deep in Iowa's standard cover two -- can make a play.

I say "supposed to" because, so often during Miller's sophomore season, he was not where he was supposed to be. Remember how Shaun Prater struggled so mightily in his final season at Iowa, especially against the deep ball? Remember how a particular web site was buying ad space on our front page asking if he was a "problem" at corner? Remember how he got drafted regardless? That's because, in Iowa's defense where cornerbacks patrol for outs, flats, and outside run support, most of those deep receivers weren't his responsibility. They were his safety's. And that safety was almost always Tanner Miller.

Still, he was a sophomore at the time, and mistakes are expected from a first-year starter. Last year's troubles, on the other hand, are not nearly as easily explained. Miller was marginally better at being where he was supposed to be. His interception against Minnesota, a jump ball that he fought away from a Gopher wide receiver who had broken free over the top, was the straw that broke the Gophers' backs. He played with an inexperienced corner on his side of the field for most of the season, with a coach who everyone basically admits didn't know how to coach secondary.

Still, B.J. Lowery and Darrell Wilson aren't the reason for this:


So why should we be optimistic? For one, Miller is going to start. There really isn't any competition for his spot, in fact. Iowa has been so bad at recruiting safety for the past five years that his listed backup is a redshirt freshman and so wishing for something else isn't going to help. For another, Phil Parker is back as secondary coach, and is acknowledging that there was a problem that needs to be fixed (from the On Iowa post linked above):

"You look at how many big plays we gave up, compared to the year before, years in the past. Very similar numbers. Just probably some of them are a little bit uncontested for running free.

"I think a year of experience has done them some good, understanding the system, getting familiar with it. Tanner has done a better job of staying focused, trying to be a leader back in the secondary."

He also has a pair of excellent corners in the backfield with him and, more importantly, a strong safety who won his job by being in position. And there is precedent for this to work: Iowa's last much-lamented free safety, Brett Greenwood, followed the same pair of lackluster campaigns with a truly epic senior season.

So I'm giving Tanner Miller the benefit of the doubt, right up until the first time I see someone streak past him while he flails at a play fake. Let's hope that never happens.


John Lowdermilk (#37, Junior, 6'2, 207 lbs., Carrollton (OH) HS)

Unlike The Bobby Fuller Four and The Clash, Lowdermilk fought the Law and has apparently won.

Lowdermilk grew up in tiny Kensington, Ohio, and played linebacker at nearby Carrollton High. His dad, Kirk Lowdermilk, played center for Ohio State, and John told everyone who would listen that he desperately wanted an Ohio State offer. As Morehouse reported, Lowdermilk rushed the field at the Horseshoe when OSU beat Iowa in overtime. So at least we know someone wasn't weeping after that game.

Lowdermilk is a paint-by-number last-second Ferentz recruit:

(1) He was productive as hell in high school, recording 206 tackles and five intereceptions in his last two seasons as a linebacker.

(2) He was a high school quarterback, which is a Ferentz favorite. Chad Greenway was a high school quarterback. A.J. Edds was a high school quarterback. Jeff Tarpinian was a high school quarterback. Brandon Scherff was a high school quarterback. DJK and McNutt were high school quarterbacks. It's about football smarts, and it works.

(3) Lowdermilk's dad and Ferentz crossed paths at both the college and pro level. Kirk Lowdermilk played for Ohio State during Ferentz's tenure under Hayden Fry. He also spent nine years in the NFL while Ferentz was bouncing around as an offensive line coach.

So when John got a two-star rating from Rivals and a handful of MAC-ish offers, and the OSU offer never materialized, he could have set his clock by the last-second Iowa offer. Of course it came two days before Signing Day, and Lowdermilk turned down a semi-commitment to Kent State (he had told the Golden Flashes that they would get his signature if the Iowa offer never came) and signed with Iowa sight unseen.

He played as a true freshman, primarily on special teams, and did the same as a sophomore. With the free safety position in a state of disarray late last year, Lowdermilk broke into the rotation, though he never made an official start. Nevertheless, in two seasons on campus, he has appeared in 22 of the 23 games that Iowa has played. On-field experience is not an issue.

Word from camp is that Lowdermilk caught and passed Nico Law for the strong safety spot for the same reason that Tom Donatell beat out Law for the same spot last season: He might not be the athlete or the hitter that Law is, but he doesn't make the mistakes in positioning and coverage that Law often does. Iowa has always preferred the foundation over the flash, and in a defensive backfield where Miller is the elder statesman, having a strong safety who can be trusted to be in proper position to make a play or provide help in coverage is crucial. I'd expect Lowdermilk and Law to both play plenty of minutes this year, but Lowdermilk is getting the nod for now.

While You Wait for the Others

Nico Law (#21, Junior, 6'1, 200 lbs., Bishop McNamara HS (Clinton, MD))

He's a fetish object of a large portion of the message board crowd because of his personality, his help in mid-Atlantic recruiting as a high school senior, and his ability to destroy chumps over the middle. But this is the second consecutive year where he was even or ahead of a teammate for a starting position entering camp and failed to win it. The Donatell thing last year felt like a typical Ferentz "tie goes to the senior" situation. But Lowdermilk beating him out is completely different: A classmate asserting his superiority, and largely (maybe even solely) because he's safer than Law. The light is going to come on at some point, and he'll be great when it does. But patience is limited.

Anthony Gair (#12, Freshman (RS), 6'2, 200 lbs., Prestonwood Christian HS (Plano, TX))

Formerly known as Anthony Morgan, Gair is an interesting prospect: A three-star recruit out of Texas last year, Gair had a nice offer sheet (Arizona, Stanford, Northwestern, Indiana, Virginia, etc.) and absurd levels of high school production (423 tackles in three seasons). He was also a Texas 400 meters champ in track. Gair is listed as Miller's backup at the moment, but it's nice that Iowa is once again recruiting safeties rather than waiting for them to fall into the program's proverbial lap.

Ruben Lile (#25, Freshman (RS), 6'3, 210 lbs., Cass Tech (Detroit, MI))

Lile picked Iowa over Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Purdue, and Cincinnati, and was taken solely as a safety. He's big enough to play strong safety -- well over "big enough," actually -- and so, much like Law, it becomes solely a question of understanding the position. He'll be a special teams stalwart this year, but likely not much more barring a couple of injuries ahead of him on the depth chart.

Greg Mabin (#13, Freshman (RS), 6'2, 190 lbs., Calvary Christian HS (Ft. Lauderdale, FL))

Mabin was one of the last Iowa recruits out of Florida, a blazing fast wide receiver from one of the state's smallest schools. Needless to say, with his size and speed, his recruiting tape was the functional wide receiver equivalent of the Casey McMillan offensive guard tape, as Mabin got the ball and blew past defenders. It says something for his actual abilities as a receiver that, even though Iowa is desperate for receivers, he was moved to defensive back this spring. Not likely to play on defense in 2013, but could contribute on special teams.

Solomon Warfield (#32, Freshman, 6'0, 185 lbs., St. Edward HS (Lorain, OH))

Warfield is probably the most-coveted player to accept an Iowa offer as a safety in the Ferentz era. He held 20 scholarship offers from the lies of Penn State, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Illinois, Arizona, Arizona State, Indiana, and Cincinnati, among others. He's got a name that you would expect from a headhunter and a high school reputation not that far off. Could be a true star, but the depth at safety might force a redshirt anyway.

Malik Rucker (#2, Freshman, 6'0, 170 lbs., Robbinsdale Cooper HS (Minneapolis, MN))

He's here because he was supposed to be a safety, and even though he's now playing at cornerback, we've already covered cornerback and want to cover each contributor. And make no mistake: He will contribute somehow. Iowa doesn't redshirt cornerbacks anymore, and initial returns indicate he could be a good one. It might be a special teams year for him, but don't be surprised if you see him lined up on defense once or twice.

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