Iowa defensive backs Tom Donatell and Nico Law stood barely 10 feet from each other Tuesday, surrounded by reporters and answering many of the same questions.
It seemed fitting for them to be standing so close because that’s also where Donatell and Law are on the depth chart in preparation for Saturday’s season opener against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Their hotly contested battle for the starting strong safety position is one of the more intriguing storylines to emerge from preseason practice, and it sounds like many more chapters are to come.
“Yeah, we’ll see how it goes, we’re comfortable with either guy,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday when asked if this week’s practices would determine who starts at strong safety in the season opener. “I think whoever gets the start, both will probably play some and they’ll both play on special teams.”
Every storyline needs interesting characters, and in this case, Donatell and Law meet that requirement, largely because of their diverse backgrounds and because of how they reached this point.
Donatell is a fifth-year senior who came to Iowa in 2008 as a walk-on quarterback. He switched to linebacker following his freshman season, moved to defensive back prior to the 2009 season, switched back to outside linebacker prior to last season where he started two games before finally finding a home at strong safety this summer.
Many assumed Donatell would finish his career as the backup to the more celebrated Law, who was recruited as a defensive back and had more than a dozen scholarship offers coming out of high school in Maryland in 2011.
But it’s naive and short-sighted to assume anything about athletic competition.
Law had more hype, but Donatell had more experience. Donatell is not only three years ahead of Law in school, but he’s also more than four years older than Law, who doesn’t 20 turn until next May.
Donatell also is no slouch physically. He’s listed at 6-foot-2 and weighs about 205 pounds. He was sturdy and tough enough to start at linebacker for two games last season and now is agile enough to push for a starting position at strong safety.
“I think experience and size and knowing the defense are some of my strengths,” Donatell said. “I think I’m a pretty tough kid. I just love football.
“I love being out there working with the guys. I love running around trying to make plays.”
More than anything, though, Donatell loves winning. He’s the son of a long-time NFL assistant coach, so he understands the importance of putting the team’s success ahead of personal gain.
“I’ve always been team first,” Donatell said. “I want to play, don’t get me wrong. But winning is the most important thing to me and having the best guy out there is the most important.
“We’ll see how it pans out, but I think good competition is pretty healthy, just to kind of push each other and get the best out of both of us.”
Law said he tries to feed off Donatell’s experience and knowledge of the game. Law also appreciates that Donatell is so willing to assist him even though they’re competing for the same spot.
“Tom’s a fifth-year senior, so I benefit from him a lot,” said Law, who played primarily on special teams last season as a true freshman. “He’s been here, and he’s been through this process. I haven’t, obviously. He probably has more knowledge of the game and stuff. So he helps me out a lot.”
One area where Donatell can’t help Law is answering questions about being compared to former Hawkeye all-America strong safety Bob Sanders.
Law was asked about the Sanders comparison at media day Aug. 6 and again Tuesday. It’s all part of the hype that followed Law from high school a year ago.
“I’m not trying to be Bob Sanders,” Law said Tuesday. “I’m just trying to be myself.”
Law gave the same answer at media day three weeks ago, which is encouraging because he seems to have things in their proper perspective. It’s not his fault that he’s being compared to one of the greatest defensive backs in school history without having started a game for the Hawkeyes.
“I just think he doesn’t pay attention to it that much,” senior cornerback Micah Hyde said. “Obviously, he has to get questions from the media about it. But other than that, on the field, no one is really thinking about who’s on the first team. We’re just trying to compete and make plays.”
Donatell understands why Law has so much hype surrounding him.
“He’s a really good young talent,” Donatell said. “He’s got a lot of good attributes, speed, he’s a physical kid. I really feel like he’s got a pretty bright future ahead of him.”
This is big-time college football, though where nothing should come easy. Donatell tries to remind Law of that with his performance each day in practice.
“That’s just kind of the mindset we have here, nothing is really given to anybody,” Donatell said. “There is always competition. So you can’t lay back and feel like you have any job or anything.
“So I think he’s been really level-headed about everything and he’s just trying to get better and work every day.”
The two seem to agree that the competition could drag on through the season and are willing to support the other.
“Nico is a great kid, a very good, talented young player,” Donatell said. “We help each other. We bounce ideas off each other. It’s great competition right now. That’s how I feel it’s going to be all year.
“I feel like we’ve got two good players there. So no one’s ever safe at any point of the season. So it really helps us push each other to be the best we can.”
Law echoed those sentiments.
“It’s constant competition between me and him,” Law said.
That’s reason enough to feel good about the strong safety position.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football