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IOWA CITY — Iowa’s outside linebacker has become the defense’s ultimate hybrid position.
Not only does the position fill gaps in run support, he also must cover tight ends, running backs and slot receivers. It takes a special athlete to fill that role, defensive coordinator Phil Parker said, and he’s blessed to have one in junior Ben Niemann.
“A lot of people play it with a normal defensive back,” Parker said. “Well, Ben Niemann is kind of a defensive back/safety type when he came here. But now we put him at a linebacker so that helped him a little bit. To me, it’s his knowledge, he’s got a lot of different things that make him a pretty good player.”
Niemann (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) played wide receiver and safety at Sycamore (Ill.) High School. He caught 158 passes for 2,668 yards and 35 touchdowns his final three seasons. Despite weighing 185 pounds when he committed, Niemann always was earmarked for outside linebacker. He played on special teams as a true freshman in 2014, which included a blocked punt for a touchdown against Northwestern. He won the starting outside linebacker job last year and was recognized honorable mention all-Big Ten. He now weighs 230 pounds but still carries a lean physique.
Perhaps unfairly, Niemann sometimes is compared with former Iowa outside linebacker Christian Kirksey, now a starting inside linebacker with the Cleveland Browns. Neither weighed 200 pounds when they arrived on campus but both played special teams their first fall.
Kirksey developed into the perfect hybrid by delivering the thunder to opposing ball carriers and providing enough lightning to cover wide receivers. That’s left an impression with Niemann.
“I’ve taken a lot from him,” Niemann said. “He’s a really physical player, but he also was a freak athlete. He had a lot of good finesse moves and all that stuff. Just seeing how he played things against teams and then how I can go off of that has helped me immensely.”
Niemann has his own skills that have translated quickly to the football field. In 14 starts last year, Niemann recorded 45 tackles, including four sacks, and two pass breakups. Opponents gouged Iowa along the edge in 2014. Niemann provided perimeter stability as the Hawkeyes allowed 3.62 yards per carry — down from 4.42 — in 2015. That’s Iowa’s second-lowest average the last five years, just behind the 2013 crew — which included Kirksey — at 3.58 yards per carry.
“Kirksey was unbelievably skilled athletically,” Parker said. “I’m not saying (Niemann’s) that far behind, I don’t know if he has the same amount of speed, but he does have a knack. The one thing he does have is his body size and his speed, but he has an awareness of football. Obviously it comes from his dad (Jay Niemann) and his dad’s coaching. It’s all the in blood. I think he has a lot of upside.
“Unlike Kirksey who was more so athletic and the football stuff eventually came to him, it wasn’t as natural as it is with Ben.”
Football is a family affair with the Niemanns, starting with Jay, a lifelong assistant coach who recently became the defensive coordinator at Rutgers. Nick Niemann, Ben’s younger brother, is a true freshman linebacker with Iowa. All three (depending on whether Nick travels) will be on the same field on Oct. 24 when Iowa plays at Rutgers.
“It was kind of funny because when he took the job he was like, ‘I’m not going to be playing you guys because we’re on opposite sides of the conference,’” Ben Niemann said. “Then we looked at it and we’re one of the crossover games. It’s interesting. Honestly, I’m not going to think about it when I’m out on the field. I’m just going to play football. I’ll talk to him that week and after that game. He’s still my dad at the end of the day.”
Niemann’s current focus is staying healthy. In last year’s regular-season finale at Nebraska, he left the game with a head injury. He returned the next week to play against Michigan State for the Big Ten title but suffered an ankle injury in the Rose Bowl. He missed spring football after shoulder surgery. Even in preseason camp, he was withheld because of a hamstring.
“It was tough for me with my injury once again,” Niemann said. “So this off-season my main goal was to get healthy, honestly, and improve my football IQ and take as much in and try to get mental reps when those guys were out there.”
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