2018 Iowa linebacker already has Phil Parker's attention

The Hawkeyes will replace three seniors and might look to get creative

Iowa defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker runs players through drills during Kids' Day at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, August 12, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker runs players through drills during Kids' Day at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, August 12, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The Pinstripe Bowl is a big deal for Iowa. The Hawkeyes look to end a five-game losing streak in bowls. That is what this December is all about.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker is very much into that. But after whatever happens in New York on Dec. 27 against Boston College, Parker knows he has some work to do.

Well, Parker and linebackers coach Seth Wallace. On Dec. 28, Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann will be former Hawkeyes. The seniors held down Iowa’s three linebacker spots for the better part of three seasons.

Jewell is an all-timer, a consensus and unanimous all-American this season. Bower started the last two seasons as weakside linebacker. At the end of 2014, he lost the outside linebacker spot to Niemann, who carried it for the next three seasons.

During a Monday news conference, Parker mentioned this item before saying a word about Boston College. Clearly this is an action item and it should be.

And, before you ask, yes, these competitions likely will go throughout camp next August, Parker said.

“It’s been a good month for us to find out who are the guys,” Parker said, “but right now, I couldn’t tell you.”

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Of course, Iowa won’t really replace Jewell at middle linebacker. Parker wrapped up Jewell’s career succinctly.

“When he came out of high school (Decorah), we didn’t know he was going to be this,” Parker said. “What was it? What made him who he is? I think it was the way he was brought up, the way he thinks, how he works on the farm. So, to get some guy to come in here and do that, that’d be hard for the first year.

“Obviously, we’re going to put pressure on these kids and, in the next couple of weeks, hopefully, we get a chance to get these guys some more reps and then spring ball and once again, we’ll find out in the fall.”

On Monday, Iowa put out a depth chart for the Pinstripe Bowl. Sophomore Kristian Welch (6-3, 232) is the No. 2 middle linebacker. Junior Aaron Mends (6-0, 227) is listed as the backup on the weakside. Senior Kevin Ward backs up Niemann, making Iowa’s top four linebackers all seniors (Ward started against Northwestern when Jewell was out with a shoulder injury).

Parker said that’s as good of a place to start as any for linebacker 2018. Parker also said sophomore Amani Jones is a contender for an inside position.

“He has a lot of strength and power,” Parker said. “Whether he’s going to be a Mike or a Will (weakside), I think that’s going to be an interesting battle. He’s moved up in the last two or three practices.”

There’s plenty of time before these guys are making 25 decisions a minute, so Parker is taking some time and weighing options at the outside linebacker spot, which is more of a hybrid position, seamlessly moving from the line of scrimmage into coverage.

Redshirt freshmen Nick Niemann (6-4, 220) and Barrington Wade (6-1, 210) will be looking for the December bowl practice bump (Iowa has had 10 of these). And, yes, Nick Niemann is Ben Niemann’s brother. Phil Parker said Nick might be a step or two faster. (“He probably has little better skill set than Ben, no disrespect to Ben.”)

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You want ideas on the board? While talking about outside linebacker, Parker said maybe personnel dictates that he slides a safety into that spot, moves Nick Niemann inside and plays basically a 4-2-5 defense against pass-happy, wide receiver-heavy personnel groups.

You saw a little of that this season. At Iowa State, the Cyclones didn’t line up a tight end much against Iowa, so Parker played dime personnel (four corners, two safeties, Jewell and four D-linemen). The Big Ten West Division being the tight end/fullback party that it is, of course Iowa was linebacker-heavy during conference play. Parker said he sees so much 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) that Iowa might lean more on that dime package to get speed on the field.

“We’ve talked about playing with two inside linebackers and having a defensive back out there, based on the offensive personnel we’ve been seeing from other teams,” Parker said. “We’ve normally been a 40-defense, but I think we might have opportunities to put a skill guy in there at times.”

Who would play this position? Amani Hooker’s name came up. The sophomore from Minneapolis, Minn., missed the final three games of the regular season after suffering a bruised knee against Ohio State. Parker said he’s back at practice and should be ready for the bowl.

“It’d be a safety type of guy,” Parker said. “It could be Amani Hooker if we wanted to — a down safety who, basically, you’re playing man-to-man at times and run with the flat. It’s not really a hard position.”

— Parker was asked about junior cornerback Josh Jackson, also a consensus and unanimous all-American and the nation’s interceptions and passes defended leader. Jackson, a fourth-year junior, is considering forgoing his senior season and entering the NFL draft.

“If he chooses to go, I’m happy for him. I wish him the best of luck,” Parker said. “If he stays, he’ll probably be our best recruit on the back end.”

Iowa went through this just two years ago, when Desmond King decided to return for his senior year. Parker said they’re different prospects.

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“Desmond was a different story. He doesn’t have the same dimensions and the skill set that maybe Josh has,” Parker said. “But Desmond has a lot more football instincts than maybe Josh does.”

— Also on the depth chart, freshman cornerback Matt Hankins was listed as the starter. Hankins got the promotion in the third quarter of the loss to Purdue, after sophomores Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia gave up big plays. Hankins earned the start in the season finale against Nebraska and seems to be holding.

“I thought there was an opportunity to get him some playing time, and I thought he stepped in and did a good job,” Parker said. “Obviously, I’d love to get us out of some of those situations that we were in (vs. Purdue), but I thought it was time to make a move.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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