Those familiar with the Iowa football program probably shouldn’t be surprised that a walk-on is starting at one of the safety positions.
It’s been that way during most of the Kirk Ferentz coaching era with Solon native Collin Sleeper the latest in a growing list of walk-ons to make an impact in the secondary.
Sleeper has yet to appear in a game for the Hawkeyes, but that should change this fall regardless if he hangs on to the starting position at strong safety.
The fourth-year junior performed well enough during winter drills and during spring practice to go from being buried on the depth chart to being a starter.
That was partly due to injuries to other defensive backs, but also because the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Sleeper showed that he belonged on the field.
“I got an opportunity with some guys getting hurt and, obviously, that was a huge stepping stone to where I’m at right now,” Sleeper said. “And obviously, I have a ton of work to do. Everybody knows that.”
Sleeper said one of the benefits of being a walk-on at Iowa is that the coaches don’t favor the scholarship players just because they’re on scholarship.
“There is no reason that a scholarship guy should be ahead of ahead of somebody that doesn’t have a scholarship just because he has a scholarship,” Sleeper said.
“The (coaches) put the best guys on the field, the guys that work the hardest and the guys that produce the best results. And that’s who’s going to play.”
Sleeper hopes that he can inspire others to chase their dream just like he was inspired by previous walk-ons at Iowa.
Safety has been a position where walk-ons have thrived under Ferentz, a list that includes Derek Pagel, Sean Considine and Brett Greenwood, who used up his
eligibility last season.
“It might be inspirational for some people as walk-ons because you do have a shot,” Sleeper said. “Walk-ons do seem to flourish here.
“They get it. They start working hard when they get here. They get in the film room and then they get on the field.”
Ferentz stressed after the Kids at Kinnick Day practice that the secondary still is very much a fluid situation.
The biggest challenge is finding replacements for Greenwood and all-Big Ten selection Tyler Sash at the two safety positions. They’re now competing for spots on NFL rosters after starting together for each of the past three seasons.
Only one position is settled right now with Shaun Prater returning for his senior season at right cornerback after earning all-Big Ten honors last season.
Junior Micah Hyde also will be in the starting lineup, but whether that’s at free safety or at the cornerback position opposite Prater still is to be determined.
Hyde started all 13 games at cornerback last season, but he switched to free safety in spring practice and was still there as of last Saturday’s practice.
What happens to Hyde will depend largely on who the coaches consider to be the top four defensive backs.
Sleeper is the only defensive back on Iowa’s preseason two-deep depth chart that hasn’t seen game action.
Senior Jordan Bernstine, who has played cornerback and safety, finally is healthy and eager to end his injury-plagued career on a high note. Bernstine could prove
to Sleeper’s main competition at strong safety.
“It’s a huge motivational thing, I love competition,” Sleeper said. “Obviously, all athletes do. But I’m kind of seeing the light right now.
“I know somebody needs to kick me in the butt to get me into gear. I’ve grown up as a child wanting to play Iowa football. And I have the opportunity now. So there is no reason to be scared.”
Sleeper hardly drew any attention during the recruiting process despite earning all-state honors as a junior and senior and leading Solon to a state title as a senior in 2007.
He also had good size for a skill player and was willing to play any position in college.
Sleeper’s decision finally came late in the summer of 2008 when Iowa invited him to join the team as a walk-on and he gladly accepted.
“I was basically just going to play where they let me play,” Sleeper said. “I would have tried anything.”
Sleeper gained a fan this week in former Division I coach Gerry DiNardo, who now works as a studio analyst for the Big Ten Network. The network was in Iowa City this week as part of its preseason tour of the conference.
“I thought he had great eyes,” DiNardo said after watching Sleeper practice. “He always knew what was going on back in the secondary.”
Tanner Miller from Mid-Prairie is another former local high school star that’s competing for a starting spot in the secondary. Miller was listed as the starting free safety heading into spring practice.
However, he missed all of spring practice with an injury and now is listed as the backup to Hyde at free safety.
Whether he starts or not, Miller should be in the mix after playing in eight games last season.
“I think we’ve got one of most athletics groups that we’ve ever had here at Iowa,” Miller said of the defensive backs. “We’re pretty deep I think.
“I don’t think it’s a rebuilding year at all for us. The standards haven’t changed.”
Assuming Hyde stays at free safety, fourth-year junior Greg Castillo and true sophomore B.J. Lowery will compete for the cornerback position opposite of Prater.
Castillo played in all 13 games last season and started against Eastern Illinois in the season opener. He also started the 2009 season opener against Northern Iowa.
Lowery saw action in seven games last season.
Iowa also has four defensive backs in the incoming recruiting class, including Florida native Torrey Campbell, who was a state champion hurdler in track.
Campbell saw action with the second-team defense during the Kids at Kinnick Day practice.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football