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Cornering the market

BY SCOTT MILLER | APRIL 21, 2010 7:30 AM

More Hawkeye football coverage:

• Injuries abound in Iowa backfield
• Iowa linebackers: Tarpinian finds a home
• Q&A with Pat Angerer
• Q&A with Dace Richardson
• Q&A with A.J. Edds

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Amari Spievey still isn’t quite sure how he ended up here or how he managed to stick around.

Not that he’s sticking around, necessarily.

On a cloudless spring day in Iowa City — the kind that makes this town perk up after a long winter — the Hawkeye cornerback can’t quite pinpoint why he decided to travel more than 1,000 miles from Middletown, Conn., to the Iowa River valley and environs.

Sitting in the shadow of Kinnick Stadium, the former Iowa cornerback gives a simple answer, saying, “If it feels right, I just go with it.” But the truth is, Spievey didn’t care much for Iowa at first.

Iowa recruited him as a cornerback. Spievey wanted to play running back. Iowa City was halfway across the country. He had never ventured far away from home. The university was full of new faces. He preferred to keep to himself.

It didn’t matter.

“Something just told me to choose Iowa,” he said.

Intuition — the same thing that helped him star on the field for two years as a Hawkeye — told him Iowa City was the right place to be. Even when his high-school football coach, Sean Marinan, begged him to make more official visits, Spievey maintained he didn’t need other options.

He had made up his mind.

That intuition came into play on Jan. 11, the day Spievey decided to leave Iowa early.

And by most accounts, his intuition is right on.

Rated as Scout Inc.’s No. 8 cornerback, Spievey could go as early as the second round this weekend, which would earn him a contract worth around $3 million.

“I knew I was leaving,” Spievey said. “After my sophomore year, I said, ‘I’m going. If I keep getting better, I’m going.’ ”

Before he could get better, before he could catch the eye of scouts, Spievey encountered academic issues. Eleven months after landing in Iowa City, the coaches suspended the cornerback because of his poor grades.

A year later, having put his academics in order, Spievey returned to play for head coach Kirk Ferentz. In his final two seasons in Iowa City, he morphed from being a running back masquerading as a cornerback to a quarterback’s worst nightmare, shutting down half the field.

Spievey left school with one year of eligibility remaining. He’s chasing one dream: to become a professional.

“It felt right,” he said. “It felt like it was time.”

Spievey the prep

Spievey scored the first time he touched a football in a varsity game.

Coach Marinan had his back to the field, planning Xavier High’s first offensive series, when Spievey returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

He was a sophomore — and a scrawny sophomore at that. He weighed no more than 160 pounds at the time, Marinan said.

“You would not look at him and tremble, believe me,” the nine-year head coach at Xavier said dryly.

That was the beginning of a brilliant high-school career, which included a state championship, Connecticut Player of the Year honors, and 1,642 rushing yards, 26 touchdowns, and seven interceptions as a senior.

But his athletic prowess was nurtured much earlier. Too young to play football, his mother, Ramonda Spievey, signed him up for soccer when he was 6.

It wasn’t long until her shy son took on an entire opposing team by himself — one versus 11 — in the championship game, no less. Amari figured that was the only way his team would win.

It lost.

Soccer never quite piqued Spievey’s interest, anyway. Football was his first and only true love.

“Daycare age, if you asked him what he was going to do, he would tell you, ‘I’m going to go to college, and I’m going to play football.’” Ramonda Spievey said. “It was something that was in him, I guess, almost all his life, because he always said that — before he ever, ever played football.”

Even when he was playing basketball, Spievey indirectly prepared himself for a future as a defensive back. His high-school basketball coach, Michael Kohs, gushes about Spievey’s athleticism and competitiveness, his heart and drive, his spark and will to win.

Kohs knows he’s speaking in clichés, but he doesn’t care.

He keeps thinking about the state quarterfinals in Spievey’s senior year, when Xavier faced Crosby High — the team Spievey and Company lost to a year previously in the state semifinals. Down 11 with three and a half minutes remaining, Spievey “must have had six steals,” Kohs said.

Xavier stormed back.

Up one with five seconds left, Kohs called a time-out. His team needed one more defensive stop, and the head coach was about to switch out of his 1-2-1-1 zone press that had been so effective down the stretch.

But Spievey spoke up, telling Kohs to stay in the zone. “I’ll get you the steal,” he promised. Spievey got the steal, and Xavier advanced to the state semifinals for the second-consecutive year.

“The thing that he had that really stood out to me was his anticipation. Defensively, he was incredible,” Kohs said. “The instincts he showed defensively on the basketball court, you knew translated very well to what he would do on the football field.”

Spievey the problem

Spievey hadn’t been at Iowa longer than five days when he called his mother and said, “I’m coming home.”

Ramonda Spievey and Marinan persuaded him to stay, but Amari Spievey was redshirted and never saw the field. Dealing with his change to cornerback and a staph infection, Spievey’s schoolwork suffered.

He was dismissed from the team in May 2007 because of poor grades.

When asked now what was the hardest part of becoming an NFL-ready prospect, Spievey pauses for a second, looks at the ground, and says, “Just, um, I guess being kicked out was the hardest part.

Mentally, just letting it go. Praying. Just letting it go. Just moving on.”

He squints into the sun and continues, “When I got kicked out, it hurt me real bad, but at the same time, it pushed me even harder to get to where I am now.”

Both Ramonda Spievey and Marinan insisted Amari take the Iowa coaches’ advice and go to a junior college to rehab his grades. But Spievey wondered if he was good enough to play college football. He wondered if “letting it go” would be enough. He wondered if his dream of playing in the NFL was just that — a dream.

Marinan persuaded him otherwise, and Spievey started at Iowa Central Community College in August 2007.

“It just felt like I was starting all over again,” Spievey says.

Spievey shone again, earning junior-college All-American honors. He intercepted seven passes, compiled four touchdowns, and helped to vault Iowa Central to 9-2 record and a No. 7 ranking.

But perhaps more importantly, Spievey worked hard enough in the classroom to earn a spot back on the Iowa roster.

“I think he figured that if he didn’t succeed here, he might never play football again,” said Kevin Twait, Iowa Central’s head football coach.

Spievey the project

Even when Spievey returned to Iowa City, he claimed to have no expectations. He says he wasn’t sure how his game would translate from junior college to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

He was, in a sense, a project — still developing as a cornerback and still hoping to see the field.

Starting all of the remaining 26 games of his career, he earned All-Big Ten honors as sophomore and junior and snagged six interceptions in two seasons — even with opposing quarterbacks avoiding him at all costs.

“For me to change positions like that — and I didn’t even want to play the position — and still be one of the top corners in my league showed me a lot,” he said.

Finally, it seemed, Spievey’s confidence was restored. Even when he was a tiny high-school tailback shredding defenses, he doubted he would get from there to here, on the cusp of making an NFL roster.

Marinan likes to tell a story about when he and Spievey went to New York City together, after the then-high school senior was named a Madison Square Garden Network Heisman All-Star. As a part of the event, the two attended a breakfast with all the Heisman Trophy Winners.

“I said to him on the train home, ‘You understand you can be one of those guys? You could be at that level some day,’ ” Marinan said. “I kind of got the feeling at that time he didn’t want to think about that because he didn’t think he could get there. I don’t think he saw his talent like the rest of us did from the outside.

“Now, I think he’s beginning to understand.”

Spievey the prospect

Where will Spievey land this weekend? That, of course, depends on whom you ask.

The cornerback’s agent, Andy Simms, said the lowest his client should fall is in the early to middle third round. Wes Bunting, the director of college scouting for National Football Post, slated Spievey as his No. 9 cornerback and projected him as a third- to fifth-round selection. According to CBS Sports, Spievey will come off the board in the third or fourth round.

The Colts, Buccaneers, and Giants all flew Spievey out to their complexes for a workout, and the Bears and Browns came to Iowa City for a visit.

Additionally, 15 different NFL teams interviewed Spievey at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

“The biggest question, especially when you’re a junior, is, ‘What’s your speed?’ ” Simms said. “He’s obviously got good speed. … But at the same time, he didn’t run in the 4.3s as a few other guys did. That’s really the only thing that’s holding him up.”

After Spievey ran somewhere around a 4.52 40-yard dash, some scouts began to question his speed, which could cause his stock to fall this weekend. Bunting, for one, said, “If he’s asked to play man-to-man against an explosive receiver on the outside, he’s really going to struggle.”

Spievey the professional

Nearly three years after being forced out of Iowa, Spievey, a newly minted 22-year-old father, sat outside the Field House on that perfect spring day. Speaking in short bursts, he didn’t shy away from his past, and he didn’t try to predict his future.

How he got here remains as uncertain. His intuition told him this was the place to grow up, the place to thrive, the place to become a professional. Spievey is few days away from doing just that — a goal so far-fetched three years ago he began to doubt his intuition.

That won’t happen again.

“I’m new to [cornerback] in a sense,” Spievey said. “I’m only going to get better, you know? I’m far from my potential. I’ve got a long way to go. And I feel like when I get to my peak, I’m going to be amazing. I just feel like there’s nothing I can’t do.”

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