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IOWA CITY — Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace is working with a group this spring that comes in three distinct tiers.
If all goes as planned, the Hawkeyes will have three senior starters in the linebacker positions next season, with senior all-Big Ten middle linebacker Josey Jewell leading the way. Senior Ben Niemann will begin his third season as starter at outside linebacker. Senior Bo Bower is in line for his second season as starting weakside linebacker.
That will work.
“You look at a script and you recognize who is in there,” Wallace said. “You recognize that your veteran guys are in there for X-amount of snaps, and you try to challenge them mentally. From a fundamental standpoint, things of that nature, hopefully those guys, if they’re out in front, if they’re running with the first group, hopefully those guys have got the fundamentals down, techniques, but you’ve got to challenge them mentally.”
Beyond the starters, the depth chart is full of underclassmen whose football biological clocks are motoring.
Aaron Mends has gone from interesting prospect with excellent weightroom credentials to a junior who’s running No. 2 or 3 at the weakside spot. Junior Jack Hockaday is probably best positioned to take over for Jewell in the middle spot in 2018. Amani Jones is a sophomore locked in with Bower and Mends at weakside. Sophomore Kristian Welch is probably the starter at outside linebacker in ’18, but right now, he’s behind Niemann and senior Kevin Ward.
Where’s the meat on the bone for young and hungry underclassmen? This is where we mention that Wallace also coaches coverage units. The clear path for young linebackers to impress in 2017 is going to be on special teams.
“I work with our punt team, I coach the linebacker position,” Wallace said. “And if your linebackers aren’t involved in special teams, then something’s wrong. Those are the bodies that you’re looking for.
“So, the growth would start there. . . . But they certainly have to be involved in special teams. From there, you’re going to get your game growth. You’re going to get your experience just from being out there on the field in a Big Ten setting. Then hopefully, that allows them to settle in and find a better role or a role that they’re improving on linebacker-wise.”
The third tier is three redshirt freshmen — Kyle Taylor, Barrington Wade and Nick Niemann — and, in the fall, incoming freshman Nate Wieland. They’re probably looking at competing for special teams roles.
The top tier likely isn’t going anywhere.
Jewell is a two-time second-team all-Big Ten pick. He’s long past the proving stage and has seen his reps decrease — not by a ton, like a play or two tops — this spring. Last fall during camp, the Iowa video staff released a few videos that showed Jewell teaching hand fighting to Jones.
“All three of us, Ben, Bo and myself,” Jewell said, “we have to come off to the sidelines after we’re done with a series and be able to talk to the younger guys and make sure they understand. That’s what happened for us. When we were freshmen, there were those three guys ahead of us — (Christian) Kirksey, (Anthony) Hitchens and (James) Morris. They had amazing teaching moments and really could help a guy out. That’s the job of a senior to do here.”
For Jewell, Wallace doesn’t have any one piece of film from 2016 to use as motivation. Instead, he reached for a quote from Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands.
“You’ve got to be your own best coach,” Wallace said. “There’s only so much that I can say. There’s only so much time that I have when I’m worried about not only the development at that position, but other positions as well and you’re trying to get through it in a certain amount of time, that you’ve got to be able to coach yourself. I think that’s probably the biggest thing for Josey right now.”
Injuries marked Ben Niemann’s 2016. He had a shoulder surgery in winter. During camp, a hamstring injury kept him off the field. Wallace said Niemann finally hit full stride in November.
“I’ve said it in our closed doors, he probably hit stride during the Michigan week,” Wallace said. “That’s where you really noticed him. I think his level of play increased at that point in the season, and it’s unfortunate because it did take him a little bit to get settled in for whatever reason. He went through a shoulder injury last year, had a hamstring at the beginning of the year.”
With all of the change that you expect to come to Iowa’s offense with a new coordinator, Iowa’s 4-3 under Phil Parker won’t markedly change. There are always tweaks, weekly depending on opponent, but the outside linebacker role will remain a key position in that he’s expected to play three downs run or pass.
“We choose to stay in a three-linebacker set more often than not,” Wallace said. “There are other teams that on first and second down they’ll throw a nickel out there. We’re a little bit different, so there is a little more stress on that position fundamentally, athletically for that matter with the match-ups that he’s being faced with out on the perimeter.
“We’ve looked at it. We’ll continue to study it. But we’ve done well over the course of time choosing to stay in that type of set.”
Bower clawed his way back into the starting lineup (he was starting outside linebacker in 2014) and improved steadily in 2016. Still, there’s room for improvement.
Wallace was asked if 2016 was a turnaround year for Bower. The answer was a qualified yes.
“It was in some ways, and in some ways I think there was some that was left out there,” Wallace said. “I think Bo recognizes that. I think everybody in each of those positions recognizes that, whether you’re to talk to Ben or to Josey. And I think they’d say there is plenty of football that we left out there. There’s plenty of improvement to be had.
“And I think in Bo’s case, he certainly is somebody that’s mentally tough, that’s driven, that has an internal drive that’s coming to practice every day with the right type of motivation that he recognizes that there’s more meat left on the bone for him. That’s his pursuit right now.
“That’s my job as a coach to continue to push him toward what it is he’s pursuing. Right now, it’s improvement, not only at that position but also at the Mike (middle) and the Leo (outside) position as well.”
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