IOWA CITY — During spring practice, No. 1 on the depth chart obviously doesn’t matter as much as it does in fall. Still, this is a competition and everyone has to have something to shoot for.
For Iowa middle linebacker, this spring, that’s junior Kristian Welch.
Now, before we get too far into this, let’s allow Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace to set the tone with this simple statement: “Right now, in a lot of ways, we’re trying to figure ourselves out.”
Just tattoo that on everything coming out of Iowa football this spring. Yes, some stuff should be settled. Junior Nate Stanley will be the quarterback. Iowa has a terrific tight end duo in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. There are a lot of bodies on the defensive line that you’ve seen play and play well.
Linebacker is maybe the farthest from being settled. So, the spring depth chart has Welch, a 6-3, 238-pounder, at No. 1 middle linebacker.
At least on the depth chart. The Hawkeyes have mixed and matched the linebacker spots so far in their three spring practices.
Senior Jack Hockaday is listed No. 2 behind Welch. Junior Amani Jones is in play for the middle spot.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s those two (Welch and Hockaday), by any means,” Wallace said during a Tuesday news conference. “This time of year gives us a chance to move guys around, not to say we’re trying to figure out where a guy fits completely, but we’ve got a handful of guys in that middle linebacker position. I wouldn’t try to say it’s down to two guys.”
Wallace said Jones, a 6-0, 238-pounder, has taken a lot of reps in the middle this spring.
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It’s really kind of a dinner bell for playing time at all of the linebacker spots, and lots of hungry players, who kind of starved behind Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower and their 118 career starts, are throwing in.
“These guys are eager, that’s the most noticeable thing,” Wallace said. “Whether you walk down the hallway with them before meetings or once we get into practice, the one thing that is noticeable is these guys are eager and ready to go.”
Hey, it’s spring. By the time fall rolls around and the linebackers are settled into their 600-plus snaps for the season, maybe people will have forgotten that Wallace threw out the possibility of rotating linebackers. Or maybe that plays out.
“It might not just be three guys like it’s been the last couple of years,” Wallace said. “It may be more like the defensive line. I don’t know, I can’t answer that three practices into it. I do know I’m optimistic and maybe a little more sure of what we’ve got, but, of course, not saying the painting is dry yet.”
Because he right now is sitting on top of the middle linebacker spot — you know, the position that Iowa’s defense basically funnels and spills every play into — let’s get to know Welch a little better.
Welch is a junior and hasn’t done a lot at Iowa (six tackles mostly on special teams last season). That’s the product of Jewell, Niemann and Bower and their three years as the starters.
Wallace called it “one of those deals where you try to get off the beaten path.” Iola, Wis., is off a lot of college football paths. It’s a town of 1,200 in central Wisconsin. Welch was an all-everything athlete there. He 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. He also earned first-team all-Central Wisconsin Conference in basketball last winter.
“Off the beaten path” guys usually have some proving to do beyond video of their play. For Welch, that was the summer football camps at the UI. Welch wowed and earned the offer.
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“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,” Wallace said when Iowa signed Welch. “That kind of sealed it after we watched the tape.”
According to the Stevens Point (Wis.) Journal, Welch is the first Iola-Scandinavia Thunderbird to receive a Big Ten football scholarship.
“It was surreal,” Welch said, describing his recruitment. “You’re just a high school kid, 17 years old. I just tried to work as hard as I could literally every day. In basketball, we’d have a game on Thursday or Friday night and the next morning, I’d be in the weight room at 6 a.m. lifting. That’s kind of how I got to where I am, putting that time in.”
And, yes, of course, Welch, who’s two inches taller than Jewell and made a joke about that “built-in” leverage, was eyes wide open riding shotgun with Jewell at the position.
“If I were to ask him a question,” Welch said, “he would say, ‘This is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing it.’ It gives you confidence being a younger guy. You can see why we do things. I gained an understanding through him and tried to take advantage of that.”
Everyone has to start somewhere. Jewell finished an All-American, but Wallace talked about a sophomore year grade sheet with a lot of minuses. Welch feels like he has the strength and speed to play the position. He’s going to have to show the football IQ off at some point.
Whomever plays middle linebacker for Iowa in 2018 will have to do that. And weakside linebacker (senior Aaron Mends is currently No. 1) and outside linebacker (currently sophomore Nick Niemann, brother of Ben Niemann).
“My thing right now with these guys is what are you willing to sacrifice to increase your defensive knowledge,” Wallace said. “There’s a lot still out there. We’re probably through the first chapter of a 40-chapter book.”
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