Four Downs with the defensive backs (spring edition)
QUICK LOOK BACK: It's not the secondary's fault, but the fact is Iowa's interceptions were down last season. The Hawkeyes combined to pick off 10 passes, fewest since 2005. That in and of itself isn't a damning stat. It was 73rd nationally and tied for seventh in the Big Ten, with Nebraska and Illinois.
Where it did show up, however, was turnover margin, a much more telling stat during the Kirk Ferentz era and most football teams across the country.
Iowa finished plus-one last season, with 19 takeaways to 18 turnovers. When the Hawkeyes finish with a double-digit positive margin, their record is 30-9 (2008, 2004 and 2002). Notice that two of those three teams were Big Ten co-champions (2002 and 2004). Those teams finished a collective plus-27.
Conversely, when the Hawkeyes finish with a zero or a negative number ('06, '05, '01, '00 and '99), their record is 24-36. It might not be the "tell all" stat, but turnover margin is an excellent barometer for success.
Now, the lack thereof for the '11 Iowa defense certainly doesn't all go on the secondary. The Hawkeyes didn't generate a consistent pass rush (21 sacks was 81st in the nation) and had an average yards per attempt against (7.0). In summary, Iowa's defense took the "bend don't break" motto to the brink last season. It broke too often and didn't break a lot of offenses.
You can't talk Iowa secondary '11 without the dramatic personnel change that came after the Iowa State game, when the Hawkeyes allowed 473 yards and 44 points in a triple-OT defeat.
The changes in the secondary were decisive and came the following Tuesday. Micah Hyde was tried at safety, but he was moved back to corner to replace Greg Castillo. Jordan Bernstine was ill and sat out Iowa State, but returned the next week to take over for Collin Sleeper. Tanner Miller moved into free safety for Hyde.
Everyone except for Bernstine, who was a senior last season, is back in place.
FOURTH DOWN -- CONCERNS: Hyde definitively stated early last December that he planned to return for his senior season and not leave early for the NFL draft. That's a win for the Iowa staff. Three-year starters at corner are rare and valued commodities in the Big Ten.
The one opening is strong safety. Right now this spring, sophomore Nico Law is the front runner. He finished his true freshman season with 11 tackles, mostly coming in special teams. He didn't see a lot of time in Iowa's defense.
Law (6-1, 195) will be pushed by seniors Tommy Donatell (6-2, 205) and Sleeper (6-2, 200). Donatell was the consummate teammate last season. He was definitely undersized and who knows how well he knew the position, but Donatell jumped into the outside linebacker position and made two starts last season. Sleeper didn't start after the Iowa State game, but finished with 14 tackles. Donatell and Sleeper also contributed on special teams.
Two takes on this: 1) It's interesting that Law gets the nod. Sleeper is certainly the more proven player. He did something to be No. 1 on the depth chart going into the '11 season. You can say the same about Donatell, but he is moving back to the position after spending a lot of '11 as an OLB. 2) There are fresh eyes on the position. Darrell Wilson moves to the secondary after 10 seasons working with outside linebackers and linebackers.
A new coach isn't going to see you the same way the old coach did. This statement goes for every position on Iowa's defense, with all the positions having a new coach. In the past, position coaches have been the ones picking the starters. With Phil Parker installed as defensive coordinator after coaching Iowa defensive backs for 13 seasons, you have to think he might have a say in who sees the field.
THIRD DOWN -- ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Shaun Prater was a two-time first-team all-Big Ten selection. That's a lot of hyphens. He finished his career as a three-year starter with 171 tackles and seven interceptions. One extremely underrated part of Prater's game is his physical play. He finished third in the Big Ten and tied for 28th in the nation last season with four forced fumbles. Prater will probably be a third-to-fifth-round pick in the NFL draft next month.
Bernstine put up 40-yard dash times in the mid 4.3 seconds at Iowa's recent pro day. Last fall, he gave Iowa's defense a suddenness it desperately needed, especially in run support. If he can show NFL teams some coverage skills, he could get drafted.
The secondary is one place Iowa hasn't been afraid to use true freshmen. Prater, Hyde and Lowery played as true freshmen. So did Law, Jordan Lomax and John Lowdermilk.
So, expect at least of a few of the five incoming freshmen defensive backs to see time. Kevin Buford, Sean Draper, Reese Fleming, Anthony Gair and Ruben Lile are immediately in the mix for special teams. Iowa needs bodies there, same as the last couple of seasons.
Fleming tore an ACL his senior season in football, but returned late in the basketball season to play for Chicago Curie High School. Buford's return skills could help land him on the field next fall. Draper is a rangy corner prospect. Gair and Lile have size. After this season, strong safety will have just Law, who'll be a junior in '13. Right corner will be open after this year, with Hyde and Castillo in their senior seasons.
SECOND DOWN -- BATTLES BREWING: Outside of strong safety, there aren't any. When he made the jump to defensive coordinator, Parker left the secondary fully stocked with experience.
Hyde will be a three-year starter. Miller will be in the second year of what likely will be a three-year run at free safety. Lowery will be in the first of his two seasons as a starting corner.
Strong safety is interesting. Law can erase the experience factor by being the more physical player. Who knows what '12 holds for strong safety, but it could be a position that is used in blitz situations. If the Parker imprint holds up, the most physical player will have a great shot at the job. Don't discount Donatell in that regard. Another point with Law, will his knowledge of the defense allow him to play "fast," as in he's sound in his assignments, so he can fire up the jets and go after it.
Beyond that, what about '13? Maybe Lomax moves to right corner opposite Lowery and there are your corners. Law will be a junior and Miller a senior. There's logical succession all over the place. A very healthy position for the Hawkeyes, especially if the true freshmen break in as nickel and dime roles.
FIRST DOWN -- PREDICTONS FOR 2012: Iowa probably has more than 10 interceptions in '12. In Ferentz's 13 seasons as Iowa's coach, the Hawkeyes have 189 interceptions for an average of 14.53 a season. So, just going off the averages, expect more picks from the Hawkeyes next season.
But you know it's not that easy, right? If Iowa's not stopping the run, the ball isn't in the air and the interceptions aren't there. If the pass rush isn't there, coverage will eventually break down. With so much flux up front, it's hard to put a solid number on what to expect as far as takeaways go.
The above was a long way of saying Iowa's defense isn't three different units operating in a vacuum. You know Parker will want his defense to set a hard edge and leverage everything to the middle of the field. Everyone has to do their jobs. No one can freelance. Everyone has to know their position. This will be an emphasis next season with such a young front four.
It's still a competition and Kirk Ferentz did say the depth chart would likely change a week into spring practice, but Law's upside and possibility for three years as a starter, probably nudges him into the job at strong safety.
2011 -- 10
2010 -- 19
2009 -- 21
2008 -- 23
2007 -- 14
2006 -- 14
2005 -- 10
2004 -- 17
2003 -- 13
2002 -- 20
2001 -- 13
2000 -- 9
1999 -- 6