Iowa Football

Iowa linebackers go with 'The Unit' over 'The Guy'

With three new starters learning on the job, Hawkeyes linebackers have to be in this together

(from left) Iowa linebackers Amani Jones (52) and Nick Niemann (49) pose for a photo during Iowa Football Media Day in Iowa City on Saturday, August 5, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
(from left) Iowa linebackers Amani Jones (52) and Nick Niemann (49) pose for a photo during Iowa Football Media Day in Iowa City on Saturday, August 5, 2017. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Josey Jewell isn’t going to show up as “Yoda” for Iowa’s defense this fall.

When Amani Jones gives it a little thought, yeah, that is Josey Jewell’s voice in the back of his head. The baton is being passed right now, as we speak, for Iowa’s middle linebacker spot.

How heavy is the baton, Amani Jones?

“I hear him a little bit,” Jones said Tuesday. “Not like, ‘Josey said this,’ or ‘Josey said that.’ When I feel like I really need to break it down, he comes in a little bit. He wasn’t that vocal, but as the younger guy, I felt like I was close to him. If I asked him, he’d show me the way a little bit.

“So, (Jewell’s voice) comes in every once in a while.”

Every little bit will help.

Iowa almost made it through spring practice without a major injury, but in the final week, linebacker Aaron Mends suffered an ACL tear and his 2018 is doubtful.

Like Iowa linebacker 2018 didn’t already come with enough unknowns.

The Hawkeyes are replacing three starters, including Jewell, a consensus all-American last season, and one of the main contestants for one of those spots is out.

You absolutely can’t go gloom and doom here. Jones won’t let you.

This boat is just leaving the dock, so no way Jones is claiming the linebacker room his. He wouldn’t do that. He does know the weight that’s being thrown his way.

Of course, he wants that. They all want that.

“The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense, so if I don’t get it right, we’re not playing right,” Jones said. “I really have been taking on the role. In film, I’m halfway through Northern’s season. I’m playing the role, I’m getting to know my job, so when Sept. 1 comes, we can go from there.”

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The “Northern” that Jones referenced is Northern Illinois, Iowa’s opening opponent on Sept. 1 at Kinnick Stadium. It’s July, but when you’re a junior and you’ve broken through to the front of the line at your position, it probably feels more like tomorrow.

“I do feel more natural in the middle,” Jones said about his sort of new position (he did begin spring at weakside linebacker). “They (coaches) told me when I moved to the middle, that it would fit me better, it’s more natural to you. They can’t run from you.

Video: Iowa LB Kristian Welch


“When they asked me about middle, I thought, I can work with it a little bit.”

It isn’t just one senior the Hawkeyes will need to replace. Bo Bower and Ben Niemann rounded out one of the best linebackers corps in the Big Ten the last few seasons. Jewell is now a Denver Bronco with Bower. Niemann is trying to make it with the Kansas City Chiefs.

When Mends suffered his injury, junior Kristian Welch was more in the mix for the middle spot. Then, Jones turned it on and won the job. Welch has shifted to the weakside with Nick Niemann, Ben’s younger brother, moving in at outside linebacker.

And, no, you don’t want to win a job through injury. Welch made that point clear on Tuesday. He actually considers himself still in competition. It feels as if all of the young linebackers are locked into that.

“We’re not an individual person,” Welch said. “We’re a unit and I’d rather it be that way. I’d rather have it be three guys who are going to bust their tails and just work hard every single snap. I’d rather have it be like that.”

It’s kind of fun seeing the newness. None of these guys assumes anything. That’s kind of the way it has to be for Iowa linebacker 2018.

“I wouldn’t say it’s my spot yet, I’ve still got to keep trying to work hard,” Nick Niemann said this spring.

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When the starters are new, you sometimes can really hear what the coaches tell them. It’s the freshest idea or it’s usually one that you get the feeling the players have heard more than a few times.

So, out with three senior starters and in with the idea that it’s going to take everyone to get it right.

“There is no more ‘The Guy’ anymore in the linebacker spot,” Jones said. “We all have to come together. We have played many snaps, so we have to be one unit. If I can’t make the tackle, I have to put trust in Kristian Welch and Nick Niemann, that they can come and make the tackle for me. That’s the chemistry we’re working on.

“No one is the guy anymore. It’s ‘The Unit.’ We really take pride in ‘The Unit.’ There is no more one guy. There’s no more looking for answers from one guy anymore.”

Wait, wait, wait, doesn’t everyone want to be ‘The Guy’?

“I don’t think like that,” Jones said. “As far as being ‘The Guy,’ if I do turn out to be ‘The Guy,’ I would never put that credit on myself because I feel like I can’t be ‘The Guy.’ It’s just how it is.”

That’s a really good answer. Linebackers coach Seth Wallace has a good listener in Jones.

Iowa linebacker 2018 has no choice but to be a collective and a work-in-progress. Everyone is going to have to be a good listener.

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

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