116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — The day before MLB’s Opening Day, Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace brought out a baseball analogy in his Wednesday news conference.
“When you take so much batting practice during the season, your body's going to have some wear and tear on it,” Wallace said.
The point of the analogy was to explain why starting linebackers Jack Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs, all of whom started in 2021, have “limited roles” in spring practices this year.
The reference to “so much batting practice” might as well double for the status of Iowa’s defensive line and linebacker corps.
Six of seven defensive linemen or linebackers to start in 2021 are back for 2022.
The one absence from Iowa’s 2021 depth chart was defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, who already used his extra COVID-19 year of eligibility.
Joe Evans is slated to replace VanValkenburg on the depth chart. The soon-to-be-senior had seven sacks and six quarterback hurries in 2021.
Having so much experience back “changes the dynamic of the room,” defensive line coach Kelvin Bell said.
“Really the confidence across the board is better,” Bell said.
Defensive linemen Noah Shannon and Logan Lee said they can play faster because of the returning experience.
“Once you're able to get some experience and get some real-life reps, everything just seems a lot slower,” Lee said. “You're able to play faster because you don't have to think about the calls.”
Bell is eyeing some off-the-field development for many of the more experienced defensive linemen in 2022.
“The improvement that I want to see from them isn't necessarily on the field,” Bell said. “Don't get me wrong, they can still improve some. But the improvement that I want to see out of them is in a leadership role.”
That includes “the ability to help coach and help develop the young guys,” Bell said.
Depth at defensive line
The defensive line also will have a handful of reserves — Lukas Van Ness, Yahya Black and Deontae Craig — coming back who had significant snap counts in 2021.
Van Ness, who shared the team lead in sacks with eight in 2021 as a redshirt freshman, has been practicing as a defensive end. Bell pointed to his length and athleticism as perks as he works on the outside.
“Obviously he’s got some physical talents that you can only thank his mom and dad for,” Bell said. “You can see a little bit more of his athletic ability.”
Incoming freshman Aaron Graves will be “physically ready to go” when he arrives on campus, Bell said, but he has “no expectation” of Graves contributing right away in Iowa’s home opener against South Dakota State.
“He’s going to come in physically looking like Tarzan,” Bell said. “We’ve just got to get him to be like Tarzan.”
Other newcomers include Caden Crawford and Brian Allen Jr., who both enrolled early to participate in Iowa’s spring practices.
Bell is guarded against getting too optimistic about depth at this point in the offseason.
“I can talk about the depth in 2018 after the fact,” Bell said. “To talk about the depth right now, I think, is a little premature. … Everything they’re doing right now would leave you to believe that they’re going to have a good fall. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
Possible tinkering at linebacker
While Iowa’s linebacker corps looks on paper almost like a carbon copy of the 2021 group, Wallace could see the starting linebackers — Campbell, Benson and Jacobs — sometimes being used differently to better fit their strengths.
“I can sit here on record telling you that I can see those three playing any of the three positions,” Wallace said. “I personally need to do a better job of just finding the right fit.”
Using more of that position versatility could potentially alleviate some of the heavy workloads at the position group.
Campbell is coming off a year where he took 1,121 snaps, per Pro Football Focus, 972 of which came on defense.
“You don’t want to run the race 900-and-some snaps into it, or whatever it was that Jack had this past year,” Wallace said. “I just don’t know that you want to constantly do that.”
More movement between positions could also allow for some creativity in the defensive game plan. Wallace posed the hypothetical of playing a team that likes to play two running backs and two tight ends frequently.
Campbell could potentially move to the side of the field with the two tight ends, with Benson taking over at middle linebacker and Jacobs taking Benson’s usual spot. Wallace said he has “not acted upon” this idea, so don’t take it too seriously.
“I'm not trying to tell you what the game plan would look like next year,” Wallace said.
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