Iowa Football

Iowa 2020 depth chart projections: Taking some shots with the linebackers

Can Jack Campbell make the leap to MLB1 or would Djimon Colbert want a shot at playing the front-and-center position?

Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Djimon Colbert (32) celebrates a tackle during the second quarter of their game at Kinnick Stad
Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Djimon Colbert (32) celebrates a tackle during the second quarter of their game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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In 2018, when Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker fully moved into a 4-2-5 defense with a defensive back replacing a linebacker, it did kind of steal a position from Iowa’s linebacker group.

OK, not “steal,” but certainly it was a personnel adjustment. Let’s use 2019 as an example (we’re at “example” and not “template,” which would take away what is the main point here, flexibility in personnel and scheme).

Senior Nick Niemann played 400-plus snaps as Iowa’s outside linebacker. After the 2018 season, Amani Hooker, the player the “cash” safety position was basically made for, jumped to the NFL a year early. Then-redshirt freshman D.J. Johnson got a look at cash early in the season, but the position mostly went away until game 7 against Purdue, when true freshman Dane Belton had gained the trust to play the position.

The majority of Belton’s snaps came in the final seven games of the season. He ended up with nearly 400, just like Niemann.

This is a long way of saying that linebackers coach/assistant defensive coordinator Seth Wallace still puts in the same hours, still grinds over who will be his outside linebacker.

Whether that guys sees the field or not.

If the 2020 defense is all cash safety all the time, that puts pressure on getting the inside spots correct. There are front-runners for those positions, but there’s also going to be competition.

Middle linebacker is going to be attractive for, say, a player like Djimon Colbert, a two(ish)-year starter going into his junior year. Everything funnels to you as Iowa’s middle linebacker. You’re the stopper. It’s a ton of responsibility and opportunity. What red-blooded linebacker wouldn’t want that?

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But then Colbert (6-1, 235) is invested at weakside linebacker and then maybe a body like, say, Jack Campbell gets a look at middle linebacker?

Let’s get into linebacker.

Middle linebacker

Jack Campbell (so.) — We’re going with the upset here. We’ll get to the “why,” but first let’s go over how close this competition will be.

Kristian Welch suffered a stinger during the second half of the Penn State game and ended up missing three games (and still led the team in tackles, that’s how important Welch was last season). The Hawkeyes played host to Purdue the next week. Campbell and Dillon Doyle (6-3, 235) split the snaps, with Doyle seeing a few more (almost like a 55-45 percent split).

The Hawkeyes traveled to Northwestern the next weekend. The plan was to rotate similarly. It didn’t work out that way.

“Jack had a little bit of a hiccup on the first play that he took in the second series,” Wallace said. “From that point, I wasn’t going to mess around where he was stability-wise, we just kept going with Dillon.”

Doyle played more than 90 percent of the snaps the next two weeks. Campbell saw limited time. Welch returned for the Minnesota game and played every snap the rest of the season.

So, why Campbell?

Lateral movement, length and ferocity. Campbell took the finisher mentality he had at Cedar Falls High School in 2018 and it showed up for him as a true freshman in 2019.

Yes, it was a little odd seeing a 218-pound middle linebacker and, no, that’d be a tough sell against a line-of-scrimmage team, but that’s what winter is for. If Campbell can come out of winter workouts in the 225 range, that should work.

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This might be a stretch and I’m not trying to overhype or put something on a player’s plate that would be took heavy, but at 6-4, is Northwestern’s Paddy Fisher a good comparison?

That kind of length at linebacker isn’t something you see every day. It also helps reach places the 6-2 guy can’t get to.

This might be a stretch and, who knows, maybe Campbell’s 6-4 frame eventually leads him to defensive end. (When it comes to changing positions, my opinion is the earlier the better, especially if you need to build the body.)

I just liked what I saw out of Campbell in ’19 and I want more of it.

 
 

Next middle linebacker in — I already wrote about Doyle and how close this race is going to be. Doyle had a lead in the “trust” department last fall. You know how far that goes with this coaching staff. Of course, he’s strength coach Chris Doyle’s son. I sometimes see sentiment that will play for Dillon in this competition.

C’mon. Unless Kirk Ferentz tells you this, don’t even.

I like how Campbell moves a little better. Doyle is 6-3, so there’s some height coming at you there, too. Last year, Doyle did have almost 15 pounds on Campbell. Sometimes, the weight-room maturity is the toughest thing to catch up to. Of the linebackers who played in 2019, Doyle was used the least in pass coverage at around 48 percent.

Bottom line is you can make a case for both. You also could make a case for Colbert. Iowa has options here with a range of experience. With the D-line being new and relatively inexperienced, middle linebacker is going to have to bring voice and a high level of performance.

Weakside linebacker

Djimon Colbert (jr.) — Colbert was without question Iowa’s most reliable linebacker last season. He played nearly 800 snaps, finished fourth on the team with 61 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss (Iowa is not a tackles for loss defense) and four pass breakups.

He did suffer a shoulder injury that hampered his play. He didn’t see much action in the Holiday Bowl.

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Colbert has acted like he belongs since his first start as a redshirt freshman in 2018 against Iowa State. It was an emergency deal with Welch suffering an injury, but Colbert didn’t go back to the bench. He ended up starting eight games as a redshirt freshman.

Pass coverage is a differentiator on the weakside. Last year, Colbert saw 55 passes thrown at him with 36 completions (65 percent). He was helped by nine drops, but also had 11 missed tackles after a pass.

Given the responsibility, the numbers say Colbert held his own in coverage, but you know coaches.

“He’s very trusted,” Wallace said. “There’s development that takes place every week. The one thing you would say and I would’ve said this about Kristian before his injury, there was marked improvement every week. If you’re looking at an individual and you can say there’s marked improvement every week, then you’re pleased. It’s just a matter of how much can we improve. Is it a little improvement? Is it vast improvement?

“I think we’re looking for big improvement from Djimon. He’s shown that at times. but there’s still something out there. We’ll see moving forward, but I’m very pleased with the way he’s played.”

 

Next WLB in — Nick Niemann (6-4, 235) can boil his season down to playing weakside linebacker and then Belton playing the cash safety. Before the switch this year, Niemann was playing the majority of snaps at outside linebacker. If Iowa uses the OLB for an extended time this season, it’s likely Niemann playing it and he’ll likely be listed as the starter very soon in this post.

When Belton got his game ready for the field, Niemann’s snap counts faded. seeing just 14, nine and 12 at the end of the year. But then in the Holiday Bowl victory over USC, Niemann replaced the injured Colbert and scored a pick-6, a sack and a QB hit in 46 snaps.

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Iowa has four strong candidates for the inside linebacking spots. It’ll be interesting to see how “open” these jobs are.

Outside linebacker

Nick Niemann (sr.) — Last season, Niemann saw 13 passes thrown his way with nine completions. The high percentage hurt, leaving him as the Iowa player with the highest QB rating against (134.7).

Of course, Niemann was made to play the Iowa OLB spot. His brother, Ben, did it well enough to win a spot on the Kansas City Chiefs and a Super Bowl ring.

If Iowa uses it, Niemann is the guy. He’s shown he belongs at the spot. Still, if a quick WR drifts into the slot, there’s going to be potential for a mismatch. You’ll notice it, and more than likely, Belton and/or whomever ends up being the cash in 2020 will replace him. As well as Niemann has played at times, cash is in the Iowa defense’s DNA.

 

Next OLB in — Senior Barrington Wade saw 29 snaps last season fairly evenly split between run and pass defense. Wade moved into a bit of a situational role on third downs. With Iowa converting linebackers to edge rushers, maybe there’s a little more room with a move like that for Wade.

I’m going to mention redshirt freshman Jestin Jacobs here. He was a big recruit. The 6-4, 220-pounder was a 4-star Rivals recruit from Clayton, Ohio. When he committed to Iowa, he didn’t have an Ohio State offer. Eventually, the Buckeyes did offer, and Jacobs stuck with the Hawkeyes.

Jacobs didn’t get snaps in his true freshman season, but he was still around. Wallace wanted to keep him engaged.

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“He’s been in every hotel with us,” Wallace said. “It gives him a chance to be around that type of environment, because I guess I do see him as a guy real close to the fringe right now.

“Linebacker-wise, he’s not quite there, but I do want him around for those opportunities so he can feel the emotion, the intensity of a Friday night meeting we have defensively. Or jumping on the bus on Saturday morning from the hotel.

“It’s only a matter of time. It’ll happen, but for whatever reason it’s a step behind right now and a lot of that has to do with physical growth.”

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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