Another week, another layer of depth sprouts at Iowa's linebacker spot.
After Minnesota, middle linebacker Amani Jones was forced to sit out the first half against Indiana the next week because of a targeting ejection. Junior Kristian Welch replaced him. When Jones didn’t get the call in the second half, that probably meant linebackers coach Seth Wallace was satisfied with Welch’s performance.
And then last week against the Terrapins, a team that ranked among Big Ten leaders in rushing, there Welch was at middle linebacker again.
Welch finished with five tackles. He also was a key in how the Hawkeyes defended the jet sweep against Maryland. The jet sweep? It’s when a slot player streaks horizontally along the line of scrimmage, takes a handoff and continues to sprint to the outside.
You’re going to become familiar with the jet sweep the next two games. The No. 18 Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) travel to No. 16 Penn State (5-2, 2-2), a spread offense with several different ways to attack with star quarterback Trace McSorley, who’s eighth in the Big Ten in rushing (79.1 yards a game) and passing (208.7 yards a game).
In two weeks, Iowa travels to Purdue. You saw the Boilermakers jet sweep and generally “running back” Ohio State to smithereens in a prime-time matchup last weekend.
Against Maryland, the Hawkeyes defended the jet sweep with a couple of approaches. Defensive ends sometimes were used to bend the sweep where Iowa wanted it to go. Also, Welch showed a ton of range in getting outside and staying with players in space. He stayed on his keys and didn’t react too early or get fooled with eye candy.
The defensive game plan took advantage of Welch’s speed and he followed it to a successful outing.
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“Know what personnel is in the game and anticipate the motions and how they can hurt you,” Welch said. “Our front adjustments will change based on personnel. You’ve got to see every little indicator, eyes, lean, a lot goes into it. It all goes back to preparation, I’ll keep saying that again and again.”
In a weird way, maybe Welch’s journey this season — tabbed as the starting middle linebacker in spring only to fall back and re-emerge as a weakside linebacker when the season started — prepared him for this shot in the middle.
His athleticism also is starting to show up. Welch was a 22-foot long jumper at Iola-Scandinavia (Wis.) High School. When he camped at Iowa as a recruit, he ran one of the fastest 40s at 6-2 1/2 and 220 pounds.
Keep the term “front adjustments” front and center. This is when you’ll hear TV analysts talk about numbers on the line of scrimmage.
“That’s kind of the middle linebacker’s job,” Welch said. “It’s definitely a huge priority to break it down mentally.”
Jones still is there and pushing. Senior Jack Hockaday, who got four starts before injuring a knee at Minnesota, is back on the depth chart this week, replacing true freshman Dillon Doyle.
But with Welch, weakside linebacker Djimon Colbert and Amani Hooker becoming sort of a star/outside linebacker type, Iowa’s linebacker corps is showing the kind of range that will give them a chance against the jet sweepers of the world.
— Fullback Brady Ross remains off the depth chart. He injured his lower left leg at Indiana.
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Senior Austin Kelly jumped in and has since scored his first career TD and had his first career rushes. Kelly got the full workout last week with 27 snaps.
— During his Maryland postgame, head coach Kirk Ferentz said a couple of starters suffered injuries in practice during the week, but played through them. Hard to say who, but senior guard Dalton Ferguson played the entire game two weeks ago at Indiana and only saw 24 snaps vs. the Terps.
— It’s hard to say if this could factor, but in its victory last week over Indiana, Penn State’s defense was forced to play 100 snaps in a 33-28 PSU victory. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes held Maryland to a Ferentz-era low 39 snaps. The most snaps anyone on the defensive line saw was 25.
— After Penn State, the Hawkeyes travel to Purdue (4-3, 3-1) for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff on ABC or ESPN2.
— Northwestern leads the Big Ten West with a 4-1 record. Iowa, Purdue and Wisconsin are 3-1. The Wildcats play host to the Badgers this weekend. The Boilermakers travel to Michigan State.
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