Iowa football recruiting: Iowa's youngest position group gets younger
Croot Loops: Five linebackers join the derby, at least for now
It was the first question for Kirk Ferentz during the signing day news conference.
You have I think five linebackers among your 24 signees here. Did you identify that as a need, and how much position flexibility is there among the group?
The answer was intriguing, to say the least. (Let’s remember, sometimes Ferentz likes to hide in plain sight during his news conferences. I’m probably crazy, probably, but I think this was one of those instances because Iowa did list five linebackers on its signing day release.)
“You know, on my list I’ve got three linebackers ...”
There was more and we’ll get to it, but let’s pause right there for a second. Here are the players who were listed as LBs on signing day: Amani Jones, Nick Niemann, Kyle Taylor, Barrington Wade and Kristian Welch. So, by Ferentz math, two of those prospects aren’t on his linebacker list. (And, hey, Ferentz’s list probably means a little bit more than the signing day list.)
So, now the full answer.
“You know, on my list I’ve got three linebackers, but that’s part of what I was referring to about the versatility,” Ferentz said. “I think we have some players right now I’m not sure where they’re going to end up, and that’s probably a good thing in my mind. But three guys we have for sure targeted at linebacker position. A couple other guys might be tight ends, linebackers, even defensive ends. We’ll let that play out as it goes along.
“But I think it is fair to say, defense was a big emphasis for us this year in the class, DBs, linebackers, guys that can really help us on special teams. We’ve been a little thin there.
“And then defensive line was another area of interest, also, or emphasis, particularly with guys on the outside, guys who can play at the defensive end position.”
The follow-up was in the versatility vein, not who aren’t the linebackers you have listed as linebackers? I think I know, or at least I believe there will be enough evidence in the text below to backup an educated guess (Niemann as maybe a DE and Welch maybe a TE).
Quick refresher on Iowa’s scholarship linebackers:
Juniors: Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann, Bo Bower
Sophomores: Aaron Mends, Jack Hockaday
Redshirt freshmen: Angelo Garbutt, Justin Jinnings, Nick Wilson
Freshmen: Amani Jones, Nick Niemann, Kyle Taylor, Barrington Wade, Kristian Welch
And the January depth chart:
Outside linebacker: B. Niemann, Bower
Middle linebacker: Jewell, Hockaday
Weakside linebacker: Mends, Hockaday
With most of its commitments happening before the 2015 season began, it was a long ride to signing day for the Iowa class. Oddly, it didn’t include a lot of “flips,” at least not the ones that make a coach’s stomach turn. The Hawkeyes caught a few flips, most notably Chicago linebacker Amani Jones.
The 6-0, 215-pounder committed to Illinois in April, but liked what he saw on his visit to Iowa City last summer.
Iowa is re-engaged in the state of Illinois. After landing six prospects from the state in the last three classes (all three Illinois signees from 2013 have left the program), Iowa grabbed commits from five Illinois preps committed in 2016.
Hawkeye Football 2016 Signing Day
According to HawkeyeReport.com, Jones had been thinking about Iowa. After he committed to Illinois, Iowa coaches, led by Brian Ferentz, stayed in touch and convinced him to visit last weekend.
“Coach Brian Ferentz, the head coach’s son, was my lead recruiter and he and I have developed a really good relationship,” Jones told HawkeyeReport.com. “He kept telling me to come out for a visit and that I would like it. I had been to Iowa once in my life, but never to the University of Iowa. All the way back home and all day today I kept thinking about this decision and I made the call tonight.”
When Jones committed to Illinois, Phillips coach Troy McAllister told the Chicago Tribune that Jones, a three-star recruit according to Rivals.com, was a key piece for the rebuilding Illini.
“I honestly think Amani is the most physical linebacker in the state,” McAllister told the Tribune. “He’s very athletic, but the biggest thing for me is that he’s a leader and has great character. He will be a leader and help put Illinois back on the map.”
Jones was a key cog for a Phillips team that finished 12-2 and fell to Rochester in the Class 3A championship game. Jones collected a game-best 14 tackles.
Iowa sold Jones on playing middle linebacker.
Jones was a member of the 4A state championship football team in 2015 — the first Chicago Public Schools team in history to win a 4A state football title. He missed part of senior season because of a torn knee ligament.
Rivals: 3 stars
Scout: 3 stars
247Sports: 2 stars
Depth chart in 2016?: Maybe, depends on how quickly he comes back from the knee injury. If Iowa’s number at linebacker is three, I think all three (Jones, Taylor and Wade) can get through without burning a redshirt, even for special teams. Why? Iowa should get something special teams from the three redshirt freshmen LBs coming on line this fall — Garbutt, Jinning and Wilson. Iowa linebackers, probably more than any other position (you probably could make an argument for fullback), first make their mark in special teams. You saw Mends do that flying squirrel thing to block a punt vs. Maryland last fall (I watched it like six times on DVR, it was a comically athletic play).
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Anthony Hitchens
It took time for Hitchens to grow from punch-out box linebacker to a player coaches could trust all three downs. Hitchens won the weakside job as a junior, but found himself in and out of the lineup late in the season because of assignments. During his senior year, he put it all together and was a fabulous performer (play of the year was the strip fumble against Michigan, it changed the season). Jones has a chance to be this guy. He’ll start as a box linebacker with a thirst for downhill contact.
Iowa recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace: “He was initially committed to Illinois. We had some connections to him and went in and recruited him. If you watch this kid’s tape, he is a throwback linebacker. Hard-nosed kid. He’s built like a hard-nosed linebacker. He goes sideline-to-sideline. Is tough as anyone who we have in this class. He’s someone we’re excited to have. Certainly, will come in looking like a linebacker. We’ll see how that plays into that position.”
I’ll remind you here that Wallace will be in his first season as Iowa’s linebackers coach.
ESPN scouting report: Will get physical to reroute receivers and makes them pay when catching in his area. Makes his presence felt in coverage. Development of his hips and technique in his drop can help him become an effective middle zone defender. Has the burst needed to blitz though needs to develop and refine his rush skills ... Jones is a physical box backer that will not be able to add much more size than he has currently. He is raw with his angles, technique and hand use yet shows burst, physicality and a competitive style needed to develop into a Power 5 inside linebacker.
My take: Let’s see how the knee injury goes before we sign off on playing at least special teams this year, but Iowa seems to have a true freshman linebacker make that leap every year or every other year. Sounds as if Jones (10 offers, including Illinois and Indiana) 94 tackles with eight tackles for loss and four sacks, while also recording 14 receptions for 366 yards ... is built for it. A future middle linebacker and overall rough houser.
If nothing else, Nick Niemann sticks to it. His Syacmore (Ill.) team started his senior season 1-3. It would’ve been easy to pitch it.
Niemann stayed plugged in and then some. Check this Chicagofootball.com post. Sycamore ended up making the playoffs and finished with a 6-4 record, by the way.
Here’s an excerpt:
As good as Niemann has been the past couple years — he had 10 offers according to Rivals before choosing Iowa — coach Joe Ryan said he may have been at his best on Friday in the Spartans’ 35-7 win over Kaneland.
In the decisive second quarter alone — the Spartans outscored the Knights 21-0 — the linebacker had a sack and a pass breakup, not to mention a 30-yard touchdown reception on a third and 7 with 48 seconds left in the half.
“I thought he played with great energy,” Ryan said. “He played with passion, and that’s what we needed him to do. He’s got all the skill set, obviously. It comes down to wanting to be the best player on the field, and I felt like Friday night he was the best player on the field.”
Ryan said Niemann has continued to get better as the year has gone on, and Friday was the continuation of that.
“He was good to begin within, but still the expectations were for him to improve. And he has improved every week,” Ryan said. “That’s the sign of a kid that wants to get better. He makes mistakes just like everybody else, but he’s able to correct those and we felt like last Friday he might have played his best game for us he’s played in his entire career. So we’re going to expect that again this Friday.”
During his recruitment, Niemann’s dad, Jay, was named defensive coordinator at Rutgers, making the jump from Northern Illinois. This happened before he signed, so he could’ve made the jump, too. But no, Nick instead followed his brother Ben to Iowa City. Ben Niemann, a junior, will be in his second year as starting outside linebacker for the Hawkeyes this fall.
As a senior, Niemann had 94 tackles with eight tackles for loss and four sacks. He also had 14 receptions for 366 yards. Niemann had 10 offers including Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Rivals: 3 stars
Scout: 3 stars
247Sports: 3 stars
Depth chart in 2016?: Definite maybe. Ben played as a true freshman on special teams (blocked a punt for a TD against Northwestern). They’re roughly the same size and you have to like how in that link from Chicagofootball.com Sycamore coach Joe Ryan said Nick Niemann was the fastest player on the team. One way to get to special teams quickly is range and speed. Niemann appears to be good there. Regular play? It depends. I think Niemann might be the most position-flexible player in a class full of position-flexible players. How much will he have to learn? Well, lots wherever he lands, unless maybe it’s defensive end.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Ben Niemann
HA-HA! No, really. Let’s not overthink it. Lanky build, good wheels. Maybe Nick ends up at TE and becomes the offensive equivalent of Ben? Or maybe he ends up at DE, which I think is a consideration. There’s some overcrowding at those positions in this class, so starting at LB makes sense and, hey, maybe it sticks.
Iowa recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace: “Again, it’s going to sound like a broken record ... The next one is Nick Niemann. He really fits the same build, really projects at a different position defensive end or possibly tight end, linebacker. Really, any of those three, but no different from (Chauncey) Golston, (T.J.) Hockenson, (Shaun) Beyer, you go down the list ... Barrington Wade. Nick Niemann comes with excellent size, excellent speed, very athletic. Had him in camp and everyone loved him. We have his older brother who starting for us right now. They’re not the same, but they’re brothers. We know what we’re getting. Football family, with dad now the defensive coordinator at Rutgers. We’re really excited about Nick and where this could go with him. As you can see, we have a handful of these guys, it’s hard to project where they’re going to be.”
When does that start to work itself out? I know it’s something that’s discussed before the first day, but probably not decided on the first day.
“We sat in here and talked to Nick and his mom about that. The best position for him to start with is probably linebacker and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Do you start a guy at the most complex position?
“If you can. If they can play linebacker, you like to start them at linebacker because they’ll figure it all out mentally and the transition down to the defensive line is much easier if you work behind those guys. He could be a tight end as well. You saw what George Kittle did this past year. When you start looking at some of these guys, you describe them as ‘George Kittle-like’ with the way they’re built. That’s probably the most exciting thing about this recruiting class is those types of guys who are going to have flexibility and who are going to have coaches fighting over where they land on that first day of camp. When you have two- and three-sport athletes and you take away those multiple sports and put them in one area with football and strength and conditioning, which is certainly more structured than it was in high school and with the way that we feed our kids nowadays, you have no idea where some of these bodies could end up going.”
Scott Dochterman: You first look at the last time and the build and immediately see a younger version of his older brother. Yes, there’s plenty of Ben Niemann in his game. But the more I watch, I see Chad Greenway potential here. If he reaches that level, watch out. Niemann shows great instincts toward finding the football. He’s a tremendous athlete with very good straight-ahead speed and lateral pursuit. He shows no fear when taking on larger blockers, is a good form tackler and arrives with ill humor when confronting the ball carrier. He’s adept at catching the football and could be just as good at a tight end if necessary. But this guy has a chance to play on special teams right away and contribute quickly when called upon.
ESPN scouting report: Niemann is an outside backer with good length and solid weight, has the frame to add additional weight. Plays with strength to hold his ground that additional strength will benefit. Has good vertical speed though adding more short area burst will benefit his game ... Niemann is a prospect that currently shows good ability to develop. Will need time to add size and strength to compete as a Power 5 linebacker. Will need to round out his game with development of take on, pass rush and burst. Sound in coverage and aware allowing him to become a good linebacker if put in the right defensive system that takes advantage of his skill set.
My take: I know I said “maybe” in the “play right away” portion, but the more I read the more I believe Niemann is a “now” player. Where? Probably outside linebacker. Probably. I think defense, because you can only have so many tight ends in one recruiting class.
It’s kind of odd. Ben Niemann and Miles Taylor have become great friends off the field. On the field for the Hawkeyes, they are, of course, outside linebacker and strong safety.
So, the above passage was about Niemann’s brother Nick and now this one will be about Taylor’s brother Kyle. And, yes, Nick and Kyle already have formed a bond.
I had no idea about this story in the Washington Post until just now. I’m not really surprised. I interviewed Miles a few times last year and found him to be smart, engaging and not an easy read. His answers were sometimes unexpected and waded a little deeper on the topic (beating his home-state school Maryland, inspirations).
Take some time and read this post and Kyle Taylor’s poetry. I really liked the last one.
it was like this every time
these few milliseconds
He was free
no more mask
no more pretend
no more I want to be your friend
liberated to his own thought
Only clinging to life by those dreaded words
As a senior for Gonzaga High School (Washington D.C.), Taylor made 81 tackles, including four tackles for loss and two sacks, despite missing the first three games because of injury. Taylor had six offers, including Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Maryland and Boston College.
Taylor’s words on football: “I would say I have a high motor,” he said. “I always run to the ball and I tackle pretty well. I didn’t miss many tackles this year.”
Rivals: 3 stars
Scout: 3 stars
247Sports: 3 stars
Depth chart in 2016?: Again, maybe. Can Taylor help Iowa on special teams? Remember, Ferentz said he had three linebackers on his list. I think Taylor’s name is on that list and believe he’s an inside linebacker. That’s a little taller order for a first-year player. You need some muscle and maturity to make a living along the line of scrimmage, so I think a year to build the body. But the “help wanted” sign never comes down for Iowa’s special teams, so there’s a possibility.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Mike Daniels
I’m going on the high school video and body type. Everything Taylor hit in his Gonzaga video went backward or stopped or crumbled and most definitely went down. And that was Mike Daniels at Iowa. (I couldn’t find any Mike Daniels video from Highland Regional in Blackwood, N.J., and I looked.) Yes, I know that Mike Daniels played defensive tackle at Iowa and, no, I don’t think Kyle Taylor will play defensive tackle at Iowa. At least, I don’t think he will. You tend to find places for players who stop piles. If Taylor’s instincts and development stay on this track, he’ll find a place to play and maybe it will be defensive tackle. Hey, it’s been done.
Iowa recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace: “Kyle Taylor’s brother Miles starts for us. Very similar. I would describe Kyle and his brother like I would describe Ben Niemann and his brother Nick. It’s interesting. We’ll have two of them there. Miles Taylor and Ben Niemann room together and are very, very good friends. That relationship has already started with Kyle, Miles’ brother, and Nick, Ben’s brother. That started well back in the summer when we had both of them here on campus at the same time. We’re pretty fortunate with the way things played out with our schedule and our calendar, the way we did things during the summer and the way we’ll continue to do things during the summer, whether it be camps or tailgaters, we’ve got the right people here at the right time. The relationships and the getting to know someone is maybe a little more important than how someone looks on tape.”
Kyle looks like a thumper linebacker.
“He is. He’s kind of in that Amani Jones’ mold (we discussed Jones earlier). Very similar. Old school. Not afraid to hit somebody. Not afraid to play between the tackles, but also, both of them, have the ability to run.”
ESPN scouting report: Taylor is a tough, physical linebacker with very good size at this stage. A strong wrap-up tackler who can deliver a pop at contact. Displays good strength and flashes ability to stack and shed. Displays good range and adequate ability to close. Displays good ability to blitz. Has enough athleticism to hold up in zone coverage, but needs to further development and stronger as vertical attacker. Taylor is a physical, active linebacker with tools to be a productive run-stopping linebacker at the next level. If he can develop further in coverage then could see a rise in his stock.
My take: Taylor probably starts out at middle linebacker and maybe grows into a DL. Either way, I think he stays on defense. He seems to have that mentality. A player who can go out and simply take runners to the ground is worth his weight in gold doubloons. I would submit Josey Jewell, for example. He’s an NFL-level putter-downer of ball carriers. That’s where I see Taylor moving in some way, shape or form.
Barrington Wade isn’t afraid to work out. It’s something he’s bought into, even before his days at Niles North High School in Skokie, Ill., where Wade played running back and linebacker, helped prep team advance to third round of state playoffs as a senior and served as team captain for three seasons.
This Chicago Tribune piece describes Wade’s solitary devotion to working out. It also gives some insight into his community, where football isn’t huge.
He’s also the leader and perfect symbol of a Niles North program that might be fielding its most talented team ever in the face of some real challenges.
Vast diversity is a source of community pride in the Skokie-Niles-Morton Grove area, but it’s not necessarily conducive to success in football.
“Kids play a lot of sports,” Egofske said, “but football is not necessarily at the top of the list.”
(Niles North coach Mark) Egofske estimates that 60 percent of the 41 players on his roster and close to half his starters did not play organized football before high school.
There’s something to be said for helping a team rise up in a community where football doesn’t ring everyone’s bell. It shows some pride and that, maybe, a player like Wade isn’t doing this for all of the attention.
Wade had eight offers, with UConn being the biggest after Iowa. Living just three-plus hours away in the Chicago suburbs, Wade visited Iowa City at least four times, including twice before Iowa offered a scholarship in February. Wade rushed for 894 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior despite missing the first three games with a foot injury. Wade also ran a leg on North’s state-qualifying 400-meter relay team.
Rivals: 3 stars
Scout: 3 stars
247Sports: 3 stars
Depth chart in 2016?: Probably a smaller percentage than Niemann and Taylor as far as playing next season (and, of course, Jones’ health will play a factor in whether or not he plays). Wade is definitely a linebacker. He spent most of his four years at Niles North running the football. He simply was his team’s best player and it needed him to do the most important thing, which, boiled down to the beams, is run the football and move the chains. So, Wade is looking at a learning curve as a college linebacker.
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: James Morris
Maybe a little shorter version, but Morris was in the 6-2 range and 215 pounds when he arrived at Iowa. He ran on some relays for Solon and so had the requisite speed. Morris’ intellect and drive allowed him to jump into the game as a true freshman middle linebacker (of course, Jeff Tarpinian was injured and Iowa needed Morris). Body type seems to be a match here, and, probably, speed. Now, how fast can Wade get to 235 or 240 and how quickly does he learn linebacker inside and out?
Iowa recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace: “Long, long relationship with this young man and his family. We had the opportunity to spend many, many visits together. Outstanding family that fit very well. As soon as we got him here, we knew it was the right fit. You look at Barrington, he’s all of 6-1 or more. He played running back and was very productive at running back. We have him penciled in at linebacker, but someone again who’s got very good size and could project to a couple of different positions.”
He seems like a training fiend, too. “Yes, he’s a worker and he’s grown up doing it. He’s a part of a couple of those different training facilities in the Chicago metro area. He’s been around it. There’s no doubt he’ll come in ready based on his background.”
ESPN scouting report: Wade possesses good size for a RB. He is both tall and relatively thick. He should get even thicker and stronger as he matures and spends more time in a weight room. Speed is average. He is productive as a Running back but is so without speed that impresses.
My take: It’s too bad the ESPN passage is strictly as an RB. I really like Wade.
This one is going to be projection on my part, but I love Wade’s story. In that Tribune piece, it says he’s kind of a loner, a loner in a good way, in that he likes to work and work and work. He’s into the training on a high level, even wearing an Elevation Training Mask (a Marshawn Lynch technique) that mimics altitude training. Niles North High School security has called the coach a few times wondering who the kid on the field working out by himself was. It was Wade. So, let’s go ahead and check off work ethic.
Why do I have to project? Most of the highlights of Wade are of him as a running back. He was this kind of RB: Hand him the ball and let him find the way. He showed great instinct and read blocks well, but for the most part, he was a straight-line runner. I also always kind of fall back to this: Most high schools have their best player at RB. They hand him the ball and hope he makes something happen. Wade did that more often that not.
Kristian Welch is from a small Wisconsin town called Iola, just west of Green Bay in the central part of the state. His high school was Iola-Scandinavia. So yeah, Welch is the first Iola-Scandinavia Thunderbird to receive a Big Ten football scholarship, according to the Stevens Point Journal.
That’s always a cool thing.
The Journal story covered the visits that Welch would often get from college coaches and the day that Iowa showed up at Iola-Scandinavia.
Kristian Welch was sitting in class this spring when his dad showed up and pulled him out of class.
For a brief moment, Welch, a 6-foot, 2 1/2-inch, 215-pound versatile athlete, wondered what was wrong. Then he remembered having gone through this routine several times before.
An assistant college football coach arrives at Iola-Scandinavia High School and wants to meet Welch during the open recruiting period and express the school’s interest in signing.
This time was different though. Standing outside the classroom in his black and gold attire was University of Iowa assistant coach Seth Wallace.
That would be the start of a whirlwind courtship that concluded Monday with Welch giving a verbal commitment to Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” said Welch, a two-way All-Central Wisconsin Conference performer at running back and linebacker as a junior. “I can’t wait to be a Hawkeye.”
Welch is 6-2 1/2, 220 pounds. He played linebacker and running back for Iola-Scandinavia. He recently finished third in the 100-meter dash (11.59 seconds) and long jump (21-7.5) and helped his school’s 1,600-meter relay take third in the Wisconsin Division 3 state track meet. Welch also earned first-team all-Central Wisconsin Conference in basketball last winter.
All of that is why Welch received a football scholarship from Iowa.
Welch had eight offers, with Iowa’s being the lone offer from a Power 5 conference. He also had an offer from Bowling Green and offers from a host of Missouri Valley Conference schools, including North Dakota State and Illinois State. Offer lists don’t tell you everything about a recruit. In fact, the Iowa staff often goes against this grain. At one point, Iowa was the lone Power 5 offer for 11 of its 21 commitments in this class.
Rivals: 3 stars
Scout: 2 stars
247Sports: 3 stars
Depth chart in 2016?: Whoa, I’m at maybe. Go figure, right? Again, Welch has the size and probably will have the speed to help Iowa on special teams. This is good. Iowa had an uptick in special teams last season and that was because of two things: 1) Desmond King is great at returning the football and 2) a lot of linebacker and TE types were involved on special teams. Welch is as linebacker-TE type as it gets. In fact, I don’t think he’s on Ferentz’s linebacker list. It’s possible that Welch is starting here because of the comfort level he built with Wallace, who was his lead recruiter. Welch could very well end up at TE or he could be the next OLB. So, with that said ...
Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Brandon Myers and/or A.J. Edds
Edds was a very refined athlete when he arrived at Iowa. That’s why he played as a true freshman. Myers took a year to develop, but came out of Prairie City-Monroe, which is basically the Iola-Scandinavia of Iowa (kidding, I have no idea). Myers came in with as more of a raw athlete with a basketball background and made himself into an NFL tight end during his days at Iowa. Edds was a natural and made himself into an NFL linebacker during his days at Iowa. Welch might be a tad shorter than both, but I believe he’s starting with the same rough build and tools.
Iowa recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace: “Welch is another broken record. Tight end, linebacker. We’re going to put him at linebacker. That’s where he’s going to start. I recruited him, so I’ll have the opportunity to coach him off the bat. He runs extremely well. Long jumps 22 feet in the state of Wisconsin. Came here in our camp and ran one of the fastest 40 times at 6-2 1/2 and 220 pounds that we had in any of our camps. That kind of sealed it after we watched the tape. The family is great. He fits who we are. Hard worker. Small, small town Wisconsin. He probably would’ve gone to North Dakota State if we didn’t come in. He also had a Bowling Green offer. Minnesota came in after he committed. Stanford called, ironically.”
ESPN scouting report: Good size linebacker with a thick build. Athletic on offense but his pursuit speed is more effective between the hashes than it is sideline to sideline ... Perhaps a better overall athlete than a true linebacker prospect. Could fill the role as a downhill run stopper or he could potentially be recruited to play fullback at the next level.
My take: And there’s a mention at fullback. That’s another position that all of these prospects in this post could play. I always contend Iowa doesn’t really recruit fullbacks, they just kind of happen. So, with that in mind, I’m kind of stumped on Welch. I’ll go with outside linebacker. He has the raw material to play the position. If he’s a step slow there, he could end up on the weakside. Or tight end. Or fullback. Or defensive end.
Broken record is right.
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