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Local athletes making their mark as Hawks

[ 5 ] March 24, 2011 |

The release of the Iowa football team’s spring depth chart marked yet another accomplishment for the vaunted Solon football program.

It also spoke well about the local talent in general.

In addition to winning four consecutive state titles, the most recent coming in Class 3A, Solon has two former players now listed as starters on defense for the Iowa football team.

No other high school has more than one former player listed as a starter for Iowa on either offense or defense.

You expected James Morris to start at one of the three linebacker positions because he showed star potential as a true freshman last fall and was a freak during his career at Solon.

But did you also expect to see junior Collin Sleeper listed as the starting strong safety, or in other words as the leading candidate for now to replace two-time all-Big Ten performer Tyler Sash at that position? Because I sure didn’t.

“Sleeper; he’s got the right name,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz joked when asked Wednesday about Sleeper’s unexpected rise to the top of the depth chart. “He’s kind of been lurking in the background. He’s been laboring in anonymity. But he’s done a good job.”

By laboring in anonymity, Ferentz means Sleeper has been getting bigger, stronger and faster as he waits for his chance to make an impact away from the spotlight.

The two safety positions are now open with Sash having decided to skip his senior season to enter the NFL draft and with three-year starting free safety Brett Greenwood having used up his eligibility last season.

And speaking of the free safety position, the player currently sitting on top of the depth chart is sophomore-to-be and former Mid-Prairie star Tanner Miller, who used to compete against Sleeper and Morris in high school.

It’s hard to believe that three of Iowa’s 11 starters on defense are from right around here and from relatively small schools, because it doesn’t happen very often.

“I think it says a lot about the quality of football in Eastern Iowa and even within the smaller schools as well,” Solon football coach Kevin Miller said.

Tanner Miller didn’t have the kind of impact that Morris had as a true freshman last season, but Miller did raise a few eyebrows by contributing so soon, appearing in eight games.

Miller came to Iowa on scholarship, but he was offered near the end of the recruiting process, causing some to label him a fall-back recruit.

It doesn’t really matter how Miller or Sleeper reached this point because the past is just that, the past.

It’s still way too early to proclaim either as a starter because so much can change between spring practice and the Sept. 3 season opener against Tennessee Tech, especially if Micah Hyde or Jordan Bernstine decide they want to play either safety position.

Injuries also could be a factor, especially with Miller out for spring practice following an unspecified surgery. The good news is he’s expected back in June, meaning he’ll have plenty of time to compete for a starting position.

Kids from all over the state cherish the thought of playing football at Iowa, but only a few have it come true.

And even fewer have their name on top of the Iowa depth chart whether it’s spring, summer, fall or whenever.

Sleeper is similar to some other former Iowa safeties in that he came to college without a scholarship, but then showed that he belonged at this level.

Seeing the names Derek Pagel, Sean Considine and Brett Greenwood listed as starters for the first time also probably drew suspicion and caught many by surprise.

But then fans saw what the coaches already had seen and before long, Pagel, Considine and Greenwood were trusted leaders on defense.

As for who Sleeper is specifically, he is listed at 6-foot-2, 200-pounds, which is more than adequate size for a Big Ten safety.

He was a force for Solon in high school on offense and defense, earning all-state recognition as a junior and senior.

He also, I’m told, can jump out of the gym.

“He’s a great athlete, there is no question about it,” Kevin Miller said of Sleeper. “He’s very explosive. He changes directions extremely well. And he runs exceptionally well.

“He has great hands and is just a fabulous athlete.”

Tanner Miller, on other hand, is one of the most decorated players on the Iowa team with regard to high accomplishments.

In addition to rushing for more than 4,000 yards in high school, the 6-2, 195-pounder also was an all-state guard in basketball and a state champion hurdler in track.

The only thing Tanner Miller really lacks is being from a big city because then he would have been considered more battle-tested when he arrived at Iowa.

Some fans might be worried about having two lightly recruited players from small-town Iowa starting at both safety positions because it’s hard to crush stereotypes.

But history shows that Miller and Sleeper both have the right ingredients to succeed at Iowa.

The depth chart also shows it, at least for now.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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