IOWA CITY — With all the answers left to find for the 2017 Iowa football team, it would be easy to overlook the linebackers as an area in need of improvement for the Hawkeyes.
With Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower back again as the starting trio, it naturally figures to be a solid unit. While all three individuals and their coaches agree that’s true, they also aren’t taking anything for granted.
Even with 84 combined starts and a slew of preseason honors and watch lists to their credit, linebackers coach Seth Wallace said he has to strike a balance of preparing the future for when this starting unit leaves — or is injured — while also not neglecting growth still to be made by the starters.
“That’s one thing we’ve always tried to get past, is: you’ve never made it,” Bower said at Media Day. “Coach is always harping all the time on all the players, young or old, that you’ve never made it. If you have the attitude of always trying to get better, you will. You can never get complacent.
“He makes sure, young or old, you’re still getting coached, because there’s always something to work on.”
Wallace isn’t the kind of guy to mess around with that kind of thing, either.
Bower called the second-year linebackers coach “a real dude,” and that they can all cut up and have fun once in a while, but as a guy who worked his way up the coaching ranks from high school to Division III to here, he knows as well as anyone how constant vigilance can pay off.
So there are no favorites in the room. It doesn’t matter if you’ve started or not — it’s open season on anyone who doesn’t show up prepared. Jewell acknowledged as much, even including the practice field in that. The Decorah product said even the young guys critique him and the other starters when they screw up — and that “if it’s right, I’ll definitely take that criticism.”
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When a guy who was a finalist for the Butkus Award admits to something like that, it raises some eyebrows.
“In the meeting room, no one is safe,” sophomore Amani Jones said. “The three starters, if they don’t know something, they get their butt ripped. The young guys, we get our butt ripped if we don’t know something. We’re treated equally.
“We’re all here at the same level, competing for the same thing. It all depends on who’s working hard and who’s not. I’m not saying anyone has not worked hard, but (coaches are) looking for the best guy at their position; who they can trust.”
Head coach Kirk Ferentz said in his news conference at Media Day the linebacker group is "one of those areas we’re having to count on. We’d be foolish not to.”
With a retooled secondary and a defensive line that has lots of talent but a not-yet-defined rotation, Ferentz said “that’s where everything has got to kind of generate from, and then we’ll go from there.”
Wallace, then, is charged with striking that balance of bringing along the future while honing the present. He said they do a good job within their practices of distributing reps so there’s enough time to let what happens in the room connect to the field.
The players deal with the stress of performing well enough to see the field. The coaches deal with the stress of making sure they can.
“It’s the anxiety to coach your guys and try to get them better and come to work every day, tying to push these guys forward, even when some say they have a lot experience and playing well and playing good football,” Wallace said. “They want to get better, you want to get them better. Whether it’s pressure or not, the idea of coming to work every day knowing that you’ve got to coach the heck out of these guys because that’s what they deserve and that’s what they want.”
THE DEPTH CHART
OLB — 1. Ben Niemann, sr., 6-3, 233; 2. Kevin Ward, sr., 6-1, 217
MLB — 1. Josey Jewell, sr., 6-2, 236; 2. Jack Hockaday, jr., 6-1, 232; 3. Kristian Welch, so., 6-3, 232
WLB — 1. Bo Bower, sr., 6-1, 235; 2. Amani Jones, so., 6-0, 235; 3. Aaron Mends, jr., 6-0, 227
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The starting rotation is as set in stone as any position group on the team, right along with Akrum Wadley at running back.
Jewell’s 31 career starts, Niemann’s 27 and Bower’s 26 crater to zero when you combine the rest of the guys at the position, so their position on the depth chart remains fluid. Given Bower is an example of Hawkeyes moving sides at linebacker, it’s not outrageous to think Jones, Kevin Ward or Aaron Mends are getting reps at both outside spots, trying to determine who best fits where.
In fact, Jones said he and Kristian Welch “are taking the 2’s reps right now,” while mentioning Nick Niemann — younger brother to Ben — as another unlisted player who has been getting reps as well.
Mends, who has been a point of contention for many who follow Iowa football, got reps with the second unit during Kids Day at Kinnick while trying to clear what Phil Parker described as a mental hurdle after getting beat out for the starting spot by Bower last year.
Ferentz said the group behind the starters still is a bit of a mystery to be worked out.
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“That’s what we are trying to find out,” Ferentz said. “Back in the spring we were working on that also. First thing to see where those guys are from April until now. See how they handle camp and where they can go.”
If everything stays as is — here’s where you knock on wood, Hawkeye fans — Iowa has this whole season to figure out who follows Jewell, Niemann and Bower.
But in the event it doesn’t, Wallace highlighted Jones, Welch and Mends getting work on special teams last season. At the very least, Wallace said, it’ll take the shine off the newness of running down the field and the butterflies that might come with it.
“From an anxiety standpoint, I think they’ve curbed that a little bit,” Wallace said. “Going into this year, if you were to throw them out there, if they were to go into the game at the linebacker position, assuming they were prepared, I don’t think they would have those jitters that maybe somebody else would.”
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