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IOWA CITY — Unfortunately for John Lowdermilk, he’s famous for being infamous.
Midway through the third quarter of last January’s Outback Bowl, the Iowa senior strong safety picked off an overthrown LSU pass at Iowa’s 28-yard line. Lowdermilk raced untouched down the left sideline into the end zone, uncontested for the final 20 yards. But in a celebratory move, Lowdermilk dropped the ball before crossing the goal line. Nobody picked up the ball and after a video review, the ball was placed at the LSU 1-yard line.
Three plays later Iowa scored a touchdown to take Lowdermilk off the hook. But he spent the longest five minutes of his life on the Iowa sideline wanting to vomit.
“It’s something I wish I could do over again,” Lowdermilk said. “Hopefully I get another chance. It was a sickening feeling. It was one of those feelings where you just want to disappear. You don’t anybody to see you or anything. It just happened. It definitely wasn’t fun.”
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker also was beyond words with Lowdermilk’s error. But he also knew Lowdermilk needed to refocus on the next possession, no matter what happened offense.
“Obviously he felt bad. He knew what happened,” Parker said. “I just kind of joked around. Obviously I wasn’t very happy, but it did give us a little bit extra time to rest. That’s kind of the way I approached it with him because he had to go back out on the field as soon as we scored. So it gave us a couple of plays to rest him a little bit.”
Lowdermilk recovered, although his buddies back in Carrolltown, Ohio, still light him up over the blunder. The thought of their ribbing still makes him wince, then smile. Then he focuses on this season.
Entering this fall as the secondary’s only senior starter, Lowdermilk now is the de facto leader despite his quiet disposition. But don’t mistake his lack of oratory fire for disinterest. Lowdermilk is quite willing to mix it up with opponents regardless of size. At strong safety, he generally lines up eight yards from the line of scrimmage. He carries dual responsibility in the pass and the run. Any kind of apprehension in either vein could result in a big play for the offense.
“It’s a quick read. You have a run fit,” Lowdermilk said. “It’s basically inside the tight end and you’re the C-gap player. So if there’s a run, you’re down there right away. If you’re not down there fast enough, then Coach Parker is all over you. I don’t know if you have to read things quicker, but you’ve got to be in the run game much faster (than at free safety).”
Attacking the C-gap once he identifies a run is vital. Lowdermilk is the son of former NFL center Kirk Lowdermilk but he doesn’t carry the same mass as his father. A slight hesitation gives a much-heavier offensive lineman (or even a fullback) a powerful edge. But a false step on a play-action pass could allow a slot receiver or tight end to slip past him and result in a big gain.
“If they’re running (an outside scheme play) and if you’re not down fast enough hitting the fullback, then it easily can be a 10-yard gain,” Lowdermilk said. “Reading your keys is really the difference between an 8-to-10-yard gain and a 2-to-3-yard gain.”
Parker, a standout safety himself at Michigan State, has coached his share of top-notch Big Ten safeties. Lowdermilk arrived on campus three years ago as a 195-pound linebacker. Once he made the switch to safety, he’s become more comfortable. Parker said Lowdermilk has no problems lining up players in the right spots and making the necessary checks.
“The longer you go through it and understand the diagnosing the play is the biggest thing for strong safeties because we do have a lot of conflicts,” Parker said. “We want the fit the run and we want to play the pass when it’s pass. I think he does a better job of diagnosing the plays and reading his keys faster.
“It took me a long time to put Bob (Sanders) in a game and it took a long time to get Sean Considine, Derek Pagel and it’s just the training. Once they catch on, and the spend a lot of time in the film room and understand what’s going on they see it better. The more experience you have, the more knowledge you have, the faster you play. Even though you may not be faster in the 40, but you play faster and just pick things up as you go.”
Lowdermilk has learned from his share of veterans in his Iowa career. He credits Tanner Miller for showing him how to watch film and Micah Hyde for welcoming, teaching and leading younger players like himself. Lowdermilk hopes to do the same with his current teammates, whether it’s words or actions.
“Players have to do things within their own personality,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “But the way he plays, his attitude and his effort on the practice field, etc., all those things are going to help make him be a logical leader on the defense that he needs to be. He needs to accept that.”
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