Four Downs: Iowa's 2017 Linebackers

Led by Josey Jewell, the Hawkeyes should be able to rely on valuable experience

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Taking a look at the 2017 Hawkeyes. Today it’s the linebackers, where it’s senior, senior and senior.

Returning scholarship inside linebackers — Josey Jewell (6-2, 236, sr.), Bo Bower (6-2, 235, sr.), Jack Hockaday (6-1, 232, jr.), Amani Jones (6-0, 235, so.), Aaron Mends (6-0, 227, jr.), Kyle Taylor (6-0, 225, #fr.), Barrington Wade (6-1, 223, #fr.), Kristian Welch (6-3, 232, so.), Nick Niemann (6-4, 225)

Returning scholarship outside linebackers — Ben Niemann (6-3, 233, sr.), Kevin Ward (6-1, 217, sr.)

Incoming freshmen — Nate Wieland (6-1, 220)

Returning walk-on inside linebackers — Jacob Sobotka (6-3, 235, jr.)

Key losses — None

Quick Look Back

I don’t usually get into postseason award second-guessing. There are so many variables that go into it, mostly winning. Big winners get more attention and therefore get more awards. (Louisville QB Lamar Jackson is a notable exception, putting up odometer stats and winning the Heisman while playing for a 9-4 team last season.)

I guarantee you a lot of all-Big Ten ballots at linebacker last fall pitted Iowa’s Josey Jewell and Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan for the final spot. Ohio State made the College Football Playoff. Iowa finished 8-5. That factored.

So, it’s been second-team all-Big Ten the past two seasons for Jewell. He did make the Butkus Award final five. Jewell isn’t the type of player who panhandles for recognition, but that Butkus finalist thingie would be something I’d put at the top of my resume.

Bottom line, Jewell, Iowa’s middle linebacker the last two seasons, is having an all-time-type career. How all-time? Jewell enters the season No. 18 on Iowa’s career tackles list.

Tackles is a stat that is sometimes, in my opinion, taken for granted. What’s a pure tackle? Do you include assists? What about that Pro Football Focus “stops” number?

Tackles are the art of getting the ballcarrier to the ground. It’s the blood that runs through the veins of defense.

That’s Jewell’s best thing, a master of the art of getting runners to the ground.

Jewell goes into 2017 with 301 career tackles. If he has his usual 125 or so this season, among the names he’ll pass on Iowa’s career list are Chad Greenway, James Morris, Fred Barr, Tom Rusk, Christian Kirksey and Bob Sanders.

Measure Jewell that way and he’s worth his weight in eye black for a defense that’s performed to expectation over the last four seasons (the Penn State game, oh man, that left a mark, but overall).

Senior Ben Niemann struggled through a bucket of early-season injuries to have a solid year. According to PFF measures, Niemann was Iowa’s second-best defender against Michigan, behind defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. Yes, Iowa runs a 4-3 defense, but it also adjusts to what offenses throw at it. Niemann is often cast in that “adjuster” role. He has a fantastic football IQ and, when he’s healthy, is a top five defender for Iowa game in and game out.

 

Bo Bower could’ve gone fetal position after losing the outside linebacker job to Niemann in late 2014 and then backing up Cole Fisher at the weakside spot in 2015. But he didn’t and he landed the weakside role in 2017, finishing with 91 tackles.

Going off PFF performance measures, Bower was Iowa’s second-lowest rated defender. This is where the assistant coach will say “PFF is full of crap,” but then the social media team will RT the great (and I mean great) things PFF tweets about Baltimore Ravens guard Marshal Yanda.

We’ve been over this. Use the PFF ratings as you will. If nothing else, they’re good for discussion and that’s kind of what this thing is about.

4th Down — Critical Questions

Do Iowa’s linebackers need to be more disruptive?

Last year, I tried to devise a measure for disruption. It was really clever. Add sacks and tackles for loss and, kaboom, you’ve got a disruption metric. OK, that doesn’t capture everything. PFF is great at marking QB hits and hurries. Those would have to factor.

A lot goes into disruption and how it fits in a particular defense’s system.

Last season, Iowa’s defensive line was spectacularly disruptive in some games, so Iowa’s linebackers were asked to do less on that end. Still, last season was a four-year low for disruption numbers from Iowa’s linebackers.

The 2.5 sacks isn’t a lot compared to the 9.0, 7.5 and 11.5 Iowa linebackers put up in 2015, 2014 and 2013. Iowa’s LBs had 10.5 tackles for loss last year. In 2015, it was 20.5, 17.5 in 2014 and 30.5 in 2013.

Staff / The Gazette

That 2013 LB group was Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris. A fantastic group, so these numbers come with caveats.

This D-line will be without Jaleel Johnson. He was the team leader in disruption last season. So, without knowing how the rest of the D-line group will plug in and yet knowing it will be young and inexperienced at tackle, yes, Iowa’s linebackers will have to be more disruptive in 2017. Smartly disruptive. Iowa’s LBs will be tested with some move QBs (Penn State’s Trace McSorley, for one, and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett for another). Against those types of offense, spread with effective RPO, what linebackers do in coverage is just as important as what they do in disruption.

How did Iowa LBs do in pass coverage last season?

 

According to PFF, Niemann graded the best, followed closely by Jewell with Bower in third. That’s probably how you’d want that to go, with a high percentage of Niemann’s job being spent in coverage. For what it’s worth, however, PFF had Niemann with 389 downs in pass coverage and Bower with 381. I would’ve thought that the divide would be larger (Jewell was credited with 357 pass plays).

Why isn’t snap count a big deal for linebackers?

Linebackers don’t carry the size defensive linemen do. Industry standard is 95 percent of all defensive snaps, depending on personnel groups. How many teams do you see rotating linebackers before third-and-long? Snap counts don’t translate equally from position to position.

3rd Down — Additions/Subtractions

Iowa’s three starters have a combined 84 career starts over the last three seasons. Jewell has started 30 consecutive games.

Offensive line and linebacker are Iowa’s two most experienced position groups. That should lead to a big year, but let’s see if the offense can score touchdowns (sounds simple, doesn’t it?) and interior D-line depth emerges.

Jewell and Niemann also are academic all-Big Ten. Studying the game and knowing where to be isn’t a problem for them.

There were two scholarship departures from last season. Nick Wilson was dismissed from the team before 2016 began. Sophomore Angelo Garbutt announced his transfer earlier this summer. Neither were in the top six and probably not the top nine.

Iowa has a glut of young linebackers. The position wasn’t a priority with the 2017 class, but Iowa City High’s Nate Wieland had a scholarship offer to play QB at Northern Illinois. He might’ve been headed to linebacker with the Huskies, but Iowa jumped in during the final week of recruiting and so it was linebacker at Iowa.

Speed and lateral quickness will determine his path. He is a big, physical player. Someone is eventually going to have to take over for Jewell. Wieland has a similar build.

2nd Down — Battles Brewing

Is there a battle on the weakside between Bower and sophomore Amani Jones?

Probably not, but maybe? I know, that’s not a satisfying answer. Can Iowa be better at WLB? Yes. Can it be better at most positions? Sure. This opens the door on the “union card” and “do Iowa coaches always play the best players?” debate.

You know, this isn’t a debate as much as it’s a stab in the dark for a reason/scapegoat/finger point when things go wrong on defense and someone has a hot keyboard in front of them. And hey, that includes me. “Union card” is my line.

I reject with vigor the notion that coaches don’t start the best players. Maybe 99 percent of us — everyone who follows and cares about Iowa football, fans and media and Big Foots — don’t see Iowa’s practices. Did you know every practice is filmed and studied? I’ve never asked and know I probably wouldn’t get a straight answer, but I imagine there’s some hard core charting of contact parts of practice and maybe even individual drills.

I refuse to believe if player 1 sits here in evaluations (my hand is above my head) and player 2 is here (my hand is chest level), that a coach worth his Bike sans-a-belt coaching shorts would go with player 2 because he likes the cut of his jib.

But what about “gamers”? How does anyone know if a player is a “gamer” if said “gamer” doesn’t hold up his end of the deal in practice? No one, that’s who.

Now, does the better athlete always win the job? No. If the better athlete — we’re talking linebacker specifically — doesn’t know what he’s doing in coverage, misses calls, blows keys, he’s not in the game. Iowa’s defense is predicated on 11 players being in position and then rebounding for displacement. Iowa can’t have one of its own players displacing himself (tune into the 2012 season and Anthony Hitchens, who was pulled from a game or two for being out of position even though he was the team leader in tackles).

So, is there a battle between Bower and Jones? That depends on Jones. I’ve always felt the contender has to win by knockout. Jones has camp to show that he deserves the job. What’s a knockout? Be unblockable against the No. 2 offense. Make an impact on any snap with the 1s, including drills like 9 on 7. Know the position. Do the video study. Listen to Jewell.

Jones is an impressive physical player, but don’t discount Bower’s growth. In his four years, he’s gone from pretty thin walk-on LB to an impressive 235 pounds. He can hold his own on the inside.

I think there is a battle here. Can Jones land the knockout?

Because Iowa has three senior starters at LB, let’s do a 2018 two deep, just for fun.

MLB — Jack Hockaday, Kristian Welch, Nick Wieland

Hockaday missed a lot of spring with an undisclosed injury. He needs to make some noise on special teams. Welch is the biggest and might be the most athletic of these three. Might be. Wieland is an underrated athlete.

WLB — Amani Jones, Aaron Mends

I feel like it’s a matter of time for Jones. If Mends were two inches taller, would he be Nate Meier, an LB playing DE? (I’m not sure any other Hawkeye has maximized his body and skills more than Meier did in 2015.)

OLB — Nick Niemann, Barrington Wade

Kind of reaching here. Nick Niemann is a taller version of his brother. Is he as athletic? Wade is an interesting prospect. Beyond OLB, Iowa doesn’t make room for hybrid types, but you could argue that OLB is the hybrid position.

1st Down — In Summary

Five finishing thoughts on what needs to happen for the best-case scenario.

1. Keeping the LBs clean — As the DTs go, so go the LBs. The 2012 linebacker group was the same one that starred in 2013 and the same one that is in the NFL. The 2012 defensive tackle group was a work in progress. It became NFL-bound in 2013, when Carl Davis realized his potential and Louis Trinca-Pasat grew into the position. And then the LBs were devastating.

For Iowa’s LBs to have serious impact, it all starts up front.

2. Special teams should benefit — Iowa will have seven underclassmen at linebacker who’ll play behind three senior starters. The 2018 depth chart is a blank and all seven of these underclassmen likely will be here next year. No one is beating out Jewell, but one of these guys can block a punt, cause a fumble or just play good, clean lane coverage on kicks and punts.

3. Get home — On third down, when Iowa goes into the raider/bandit package, more often than not two linebackers are pulled into blitzing the QB. If their assignment is to check the RB or cover anyone who crosses their face, please disregard this. More often than not, two linebackers end up rushing. It wouldn’t hurt to get more payoff here, be it a sack or getting the QB off his spot.

4. Jewell leads the Big Ten in tackles — He’s going to contend for this, anyway (he’s been second the last two years), so we might as well verbalize it. If Jewell is in the top two, Iowa’s defense probably had a representative season (and new DT Cedrick Lattimore was probably pretty good, too).

5. Climb the league ladder in tackles for loss — This doesn’t feel essential, mostly because of 2015, but can Iowa afford to have this trend any lower? It’s system and philosophy at work here and it’s hard to argue with the relative success Iowa’s defense has had the last four seasons (all top 25 finishes in total defense).

But here are the numbers: Iowa finished 13th in the league with 60.0 tackles for loss last year. In 2015, it was 14th with 62.0. The 2014 team was 11th with 71.0. We’ve been over 2013. Iowa’s NFL-caliber LBs were activated and disruptive, helping Iowa to 80.0 TFLs and a fourth-place finish in the league.

Staff / The Gazette

Jaleel Johnson talked about the read-and-react philosophy at the NFL Combine. He got the big picture part of it, but players also want to make those big plays.

Johnson compared his experience in the Senior Bowl, where he was turned loose to rush the passer, to what he was asked to do at Iowa.

“I feel like as an individual, not playing in a defense where it’s read run first and then pass, I feel like I was able to go out and work on things from a pass rush standpoint (at the Senior Bowl) as opposed to reading a key and then going,” Johnson said. “I felt like I had a lot more freedom to really work as a player and more as a football player.”

Iowa’s defense takes discipline. Everyone has a place. It’s how the Hawkeyes often neutralize speed. But yeah, you can see where a guy might want to cut loose every once in a while.

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

Watch: Josey Jewell talks summer workouts
 

 

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