IOWA CITY -- So far in his short career, Nico Law had that big hit on running back Damon Bullock during Iowa's spring scrimmage in March. He also had 11 tackles last season, mostly on special teams.
This doesn't quite match up with the "next Bob Sanders" hype that has surrounded the 6-1, 195-pound strong safety in the run up to his sophomore season. The Big Ten Network floated Law comparisons to Sanders, the former Iowa all-Big Ten and all-pro Indianapolis Colts strong safety.
About 30 seconds into Iowa's media day, Law was asked, "If I saw the name Bob Sanders, what do you think?"
Law's answer was smart. It showed he knows where he's at, a still developing sophomore at the University of Iowa.
"Bob Sanders is Bob Sanders. He's a great player," said Law, who played last season as a true freshman after coming in from Maryland. "I like that people compare me to him, but I want to build my own legacy. I just want to be a team player."
Almost a week out of Iowa's season opener, the strong safety position is up for grabs. During last weekend's scrimmage, Law split time with fifth-year senior Tommy Donatell. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker called the race even and he knows what he's talking about. He coached Iowa's secondary for 13 years before his promotion last February. He knows both players extremely well.
“It’s still a revolving door there a little bit,” Parker said. “We’re trying to figure out if it’s Nico Law or Tommy, who’s had a good two-a-days. We’re happy with him and we feel good about that. There’s a good challenge.”
Law seems to get the vibe that's being thrown. During media day, Law played it down, which was a bit of a departure from what you might've expected. When he committed and signed with Iowa in 2011, Law hosted his own internet radio show. He also was a Twitter buzz saw, which has since been shut down.
When it was time to talk for the first time in an Iowa jersey, Law was reserved.
"That comes through coaches, so I'm not really sure," he said when asked what he thought it would take to win him the job. "I'm just trying to get better. I'm just learning as the camp goes. I kind of look up to the fifth-year seniors. They've helped me out a lot. They've helped me improve, we've all improved."
He was asked if he was the hardest hitter on the team (residue from the hit he put on Bullock, which was a doozy). "I wouldn't say that. I'll let my teammates judge that," he said.
Law also gave people a sneak peek at what Parker's plans for Iowa's defense might be this season. "There's more man coverage and there's a lot more blitzing," he said. "You've got people coming from everywhere."
Law isn't Bob Sanders, a three-time first-team all-Big Ten safety (there have only been nine players in Iowa history to earn first-team all-Big Ten three straight seasons). Law has his own agenda and he's pushing hard to realize it.
Maybe too hard. Law is one of those players who's his own worst critic.
"Basically, my philosophy with Nico is, 'Relax,' " said secondary coach Darrell Wilson, who moved over from linebackers this season replacing Parker. " 'Let me coach you, you're doing a good job. Trust yourself. Trust the system. Trust your coaches.'
"You'd rather have a young man who's way up here and have him turn the volume down, than have a guy who needs to turn it up."
Senior cornerback Micah Hyde has been where Law is. He also played as a true freshman. Hyde jumped into the starting lineup as a sophomore. He had his early struggles before climbing to second-team all-Big Ten last season as a junior.
Hyde has felt that sense of urgency to make a mark.
"I've never played with a guy like Nico before, even in high school," Hyde said. "He wants to do so well that sometimes it hurts him."
Hyde offered an example from spring practice.
"He wants to be in there every single play and making so many plays that it kind of slows him down," Hyde said. "I've been talking to Nico a lot, trying to get his head right. He's a very confident guy and he thinks positively all the time.
'That's the No. 1 thing you need in football, just always think positive thoughts. That's what he does. I always try to get him right mentally. Slow down, get the defense, watch more film and stuff like that. It'll come to you, so you can play faster."
Wilson is starting to see the pieces come together for Law.
"He's starting to get to the point where he's getting a better feel for the game," Wilson said. "He watches a lot of film. After he watches film, he comes up and asks a lot of questions. Once he gets over that 'being too hard on himself,' he's going to be OK."
Cornerbacks: No. 1s – RC Micah Hyde, sr., 6-1, 190; LC B.J. Lowery, jr., 5-11, 188; Nos. 2 – RC Greg Castillo, sr., 5-11, 187; LC Torrey Campbell, #fr., 5-11, 183. Safeties: No. 1s – FS Tanner Miller, jr., 6-2, 201; SS Tommy Donatell, sr., 6-2, 205; Nos. 2 – FS John Lowdermilk, so., 6-2, 203; SS Nico Law, so., 6-1, 195. (#= redshirt freshman)
From day 1, first-year defensive coordinator Phil Parker has said he will use cornerbacks Micah Hyde and B.J. Lowery in press coverage this season. That leaves the corners one-on-one with the outside receivers, with maybe one safety over the top for help. The idea is to protect a young, inexperienced defensive line with a safety lined up near the line of scrimmage. Parker can do this because Hyde and Lowery are top-tier corners. Tanner Miller should be a year better at free safety. Strong safety is still a tug o' war between Tommy Donatell and Nico Law. "He's a really smart guy," Iowa defensive backs coach Darrell Wilson said about Donatell. "His skill level has improved. He's really worked hard on his footwork. That's basically what he needed. He knows the system, he knows the responsibilities, but he's really worked on his phyical tools enough where he can play for us."
Cornerbacks — Senior Greg Castillo backs up Hyde and will play some nickel and dime situations. He had a shot at starter last season and was demoted after the Iowa State game. He's better suited for a support role in personnel packages and that's where his value lies. Campbell redshirted last season, but did run indoor track for the Hawkeyes, finishing 12th in the 60-meter hurdles at the Big Ten indoor meet. Look for true freshmen Sean Draper and Kevin Buford to see time. They played a lot during Iowa's scrimmages. Safeties — Who knows how the Donatell-Law will end up looking on the field? It's hard to imagine a scenario where Iowa leans to Law on running downs and Donatell on passing. Plus, Wilson said Law has no problems in coverage. John Lowdermilk is only one year behind Miller. He could find his way to personnel packages this year. He will be used on special teams.Draper and Buford seem to have positioned themselves to play as true freshmen. Draper might have the size (6-0, 180) to see the field in personnel this season. Just going off stature, Buford (5-10, 170) looks like a Jovon Johnson starter kit. Illinois made a late run in recruiting, but Iowa hung on and might have a player who could eventually contribute in the return game. Safety Anthony Gair seems like the kind of body (6-2, 195) Iowa employs in special teams every season. Ruben Lile is at 6-3 safety and has potential to be one of Iowa's rangiest, but he suffered a torn ACL in the first week of fall camp and will redshirt in 2012.