IOWA CITY — Before Iowa, before Kirk Ferentz, Seth Wallace and Phil Parker, there was a guy named Troy McAllister.
He was the one who taught Amani Jones about football. About life.
“Coach McAllister is kind of like a father figure to me,” the Hawkeyes junior linebacker said. “Being that man in my life at that time, he was my inspiration. He taught me right from wrong, taught me not to lie, how to be a man. He wanted all of his players to grow as men instead of (just) football players and (saying) things like ‘I want to go Division I. This and that.’ He wanted you to learn how to be a man first.”
Jones grew up in a single-parent home on the south side of Chicago without much. Football kind of helped save him.
McAllister helped save him. From Canada, of all places, he took the head football coaching job at Phillips High School and built it into a program that has won two state championships in the last three years.
Phillips is a Public League anomaly, one that can compete with the best there is in Illinois. Jones is a product of that program, not playing football at all until his freshman year but eventually earning a scholarship from a Big Ten Conference school.
He initially committed to Illinois but changed his mind when that school underwent significant turmoil under former coach Tim Beckman. One visit to Iowa swayed him.
“At the time, Illinois was facing a lot of bad media,” Jones said. “Once Iowa came in the door, I took a trip up here one day, and it blew my mind away. How they develop you ... I still don’t know, to this day, a lot about football. But I want to be a student of the game instead of just going out there.”
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Jones is the expected starting middle linebacker for the Hawkeyes, part of an overall corps that has precious little playing experience. He’s the new Josey Jewell, if you want to be specific and completely unfair to the kid.
Sophomore Nick Niemann probably will hold down one of the other two linebacking spots to start out the season. Junior Kristian Welch was the other starter coming out of spring ball.
They combined for 20 total tackles last season. Here’s your biggest Hawkeye question mark coming into 2018.
“Yeah, questions about the linebackers, that’s an obvious area of need, much like after the ’13 season where we had three seniors graduate,” Ferentz said at media day. “We’re about where we were at the end of spring. Amani Jones and Nick Niemann really surfaced as being two guys that really looked like they were ahead of the pack, and I think, after that, it’s a wide-open competition.”
“There is a good deal of depth there,” linebackers coach Seth Wallace said. “I think part of that has been publicized, with the amount of guys we have in the room. It’s just a matter of figuring out the right spots for everybody.”
Wallace said he loves Jones’ “presence,” calls him a hard-hitting, between-the-tackles guy. His play on the perimeter is what needs work.
This whole group needs work and experience, though Jones said not to underestimate them.
“I think we can be what everybody doesn’t think we can be,” he said. “I just feel like if we keep doing what we’re doing, and don’t worry about anybody else ... play with effort and toughness and do what we really want to do, we can be pretty special. We don’t care that no one knows about us. But when we play you, you will know about us.”
By the way, Jones spoke recently with his old high school coach. He was asked about that conversation.
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“He encouraged me in coach’s way,” Jones said, with a wide smile. “That’s about all I can say about that.”
Huddle up: Iowa linebackers
Lots of bodies, very little experience.
Amani Jones — He’s not tall at 6 foot and 238 pounds, but he’s your guy in the middle. Run stuffer was part of Iowa’s leadership council last season as a sophomore. Saw some playing time as a true freshman in 2016.
Nick Niemann — If familial ties mean anything, Iowa will have something in the 6-4, 232-pound sophomore. Brother, Ben, started all 13 games last season and is now with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Weakside, outside, he’ll play somewhere.
Kristian Welch — The junior from Wisconsin has seen limited time in his first two years in the program. His experience gives him a leg up for a spot. Will he take advantage of it?
Barrington Wade — Smart money is he’ll see the field at some point this season. Redshirt sophomore from Niles North High School in the Chicago suburbs played running back and linebacker as a prep.
Djimon Colbert — Redshirt freshman from the Kansas side of Kansas City. Played wide receiver and defensive back in high school, so he knows something about catching footballs, you’d think. At Kids Day, was second team on weakside.
Jack Hockaday — How’s this for a back story? Set an Illinois state record for career total yards from scrimmage at Maroa-Forsyth High School as a quarterback. Played in all 13 games as a true sophomore two years ago but was limited to eight games last season, in part due to injury.
Dillon Doyle — True freshman from Iowa City West is the son of strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle. Word was he impressed early in camp and could be a candidate for special teams duties, at least.
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