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.
|37||John Lowdermilk||SR||6-2/210||Strong Safety|
|27||Jordan Lomax||JR(RS)||5-10/200||Free Safety|
|12||Anthony Gair||SO(RS)||6-2/200||Free Safety|
|32||Solomon Warfield||FR(RS)||6-0/180||Defensive Back|
|26||Kevin Ward||FR(RS)||6-1/205||Strong Safety|
Iowa entered spring practice woefully thin at safety, with Ruben Lile transferring days before camp opened. Three-year starter Tanner Miller graduated, and Iowa quickly moved would-be cornerback Jordan Lomax into his vacant position. And then walk-on Paul Brown left the program. And then Nico Law got into a fight and was dismissed from the team. And now Iowa's relying on converted cornerbacks and walk-ons just to flll in a two-deep.
So it's just about every other season at safety.
The One Who Has Played Before
John Lowdermilk (#37, Senior, 6'2, 210 lbs., Carrollton (Ohio) HS)
Lowdermilk was a rock of stability in a year of change in the Iowa secondary. It helped that much of that change left Iowa's strong safety in largely the same role: Though the Hawkeyes gradually moved away from its cover 2-intensive past, Phil Parker largely didn't deviate from his typical two-deep coverages often. That meant Lowdermilk could focus on deep zone coverage and run support, as every Iowa strong safety has done since the dawn of time.
The results were about as good as can be expected for an Iowa strong safety: 13 starts, 78 tackles, 4.5 TFL, and one interception that he returned for 71 yards to set up Iowa's first score against LSU. Aside from the interception number -- which was going to decrease given the change in strong safety responsibilities in cover 4 and cover 1 -- it was a Tyler Sash season. And it was done remarkably quietly, so quietly that he only garnered honorable mention all-conference honors at the end of a very good season.
Lowdermilk was always in a battle with Nico Law for the strong safety job. With Law now gone, it's his for one more year. He's going to have to direct a second-year corner, learn to play alongside a converted cornerback at free safety, and break in another cornerback on the other side, and do all of that with three new linebackers aiding in the run game. If Iowa's secondary is going to hold up to the standard it set in 2013, it's going to have to start with Lowdermilk, a guy who might surprisingly be the most important player on the 2014 defense.
Jordan Lomax (#27, Junior (RS), 5'10, 200 lbs., DeMatha Catholic HS (Upper Marlboro, Md.)
Back in 2011, the Iowa safety depth chart was a mess. At the end of spring practice, it looked like the Hawkeyes would start walk-on Collin Sleeper and fifth-year senior special teamer Jordan Bernstine, and the backups were walk-ons and projects like Jack Swanson and Tanner Miller. With four cornerbacks ready to play, Iowa moved its top corner, Micah Hyde, to safety. Hyde had played safety in high school and had the size to fill in at the free spot. It made all the sense in the world.
It lasted two games. Hyde was paired with Sleeper, and Greg Castillo was installed as a starting cornerback, and that trio in those positions made Steele Jantz look like Johnny Football. Iowa quickly decided that corner was more important than safety, and that Hyde at corner and Tanner Miller was the better alternative.
You'll forgive us, then, if we're skeptical that moving Jordan Lomax to safety is the answer to our problems in the defensive secondary. Lomax, who was a freshman on that 2011 team, has been at cornerback for the last three years. He was in the running for the open corner position on the 2012 team before injuring his shoulder in spring and redshirting. He then started the opener last season, but missed the rest of September with another injury. By the time he returned, Desmond King had established himself and Lomax was again left out.
With King entrenched as the top cornerback, Iowa is apparently poised to move Lomax to safety and let a trio of young cornerbacks battle it out for the second spot. And sure, that could work. Lomax played safety in high school and, by all accounts, has the smarts needed to play center field for the Iowa defense (and the options at corner might be better than "2011 Greg Castillo"). But the 2011 experience and Iowa's usual reliance on walk-on free safeties shows that cornerback is far more important to the defense than safety.
As it stands, Lomax is the starting free safety. If that changes, it's not because he can't play the position. It's because he's needed somewhere else, at which point we have no idea what happens.
While You Wait for the Others
Anthony Gair (#12, Sophomore (RS), 6'2, 200 lbs., Prestonwood Christian H.S. (Plano, Tex,))
Gair's the only safety left on the roster with any game experience, having played in all 13 contests last season on special teams. He recorded seven tackles last year, then became the prohibitive favorite to start opposite Lowdermilk. Iowa opted to move Lomax, making Gair the second-string safety. If cornerback implodes and Lomax is needed on the edge, Gair likely has the first shot at his old job. He was extremely productive in high school and had an intriguing offer sheet; there's no doubt there's ability, but it might be a year or two before that translates into performance.
Solomon Warfield (#32, Freshman (RS), 6'0, 180 lbs., St. Edward H.S. (Lorain, Ohio))
You know that Micah Hyde safety experiment? That was the one time in the history of this blog -- now approaching its eighth season -- that Iowa started a safety who weighed less than 200 pounds. And when Hyde returned to cornerback, he was replaced by a guy listed at 201. It's no wonder, then, that Warfield was working with the cornerbacks this spring despite being the most highly-touted Iowa safety recruit since Tyler Sash. It could be that the numbers simply haven't been updated, and that the redshirt allowed the fantastically-monikered Warfield a chance to fill out. But if not, it's hard to see a circumstance where he will see significant time at safety in 2014.
David Tann (#11, Sophomore (RS), 5'10, 200 lbs., Washington H.S. (Cedar Rapids))
Tann is a two-time all-state defensive back at Washington who took a preferred walk-on spot in 2012 over a scholarship offer from Division II Winona State. He hasn't seen any game action yet, but if there's a spot where Iowa will insert a local walk-on and let him take his lumps, it's at free safety. With the current lack of depth at the position, that's increasingly likely to happen.
Miles Taylor (#19, Freshman, 6'0, 185 lbs., Gonzaga H.S. (Washington D.C.))
Iowa had a safety commit early to the Class of 2014, Texas-based defensive back Jyaz Jones. But with grade issues calling his eligibilty into question (and some dispute over whether there actually had been a scholarship offered), Taylor became Iowa's top target through the fall. The only problem: He'd committed to Georgia Tech before the Hawkeyes had even made an offer. There was perpetual contact from Iowa's staff, and then a clandestine trip to Iowa City in late January, and then a somewhat shocking last-second flip in which Taylor criticized the GT staff for failing to communicate with him. All of it meant that Iowa was going to cut Jones loose (and eventually lose his brother, who was already a wide receiver on the team and transferred after spring practice). And Kirk Ferentz doesn't lose two players and piss off another coach unless he thinks the player is worth it. We're guessing Taylor is going to be special when he replaces Lowdermilk in 2015.
Kevin Ward (#26, Freshman (RS), 6'1, 205 lbs., Providence Catholic H.S. (Homer Glen, Ill.))
Ward's the younger brother of Iowa offensive line prospect Ryan Ward, and is another walk-on safety that could get an opportuniity this year due to lack of free safety depth. His high school production (170 tackles in his last two seasons) was solid and his pedigree (his oldest brother plays at Northwestern) is impeccable. Might not be a true Iowa free safety, where he would be most likely to play, but he's about as intriguing as a walk-on can get.