By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – There are things to like about the 2018 Iowa football team and things not to like, or, at least things to question.
Because to say you don’t like the Iowa linebackers wouldn’t be fair or nice because we barely know them as players or as individuals.
But to question them as players is fair because as previously mentioned, there is so little we know about the returning linebackers.
We’re getting better acquainted with them this spring as four Iowa linebackers have been made available to the media for interviews.
Kristian Welch, Aaron Mends, Jack Hockaday and Amani Jones all have talked about the challenge of replacing three linebackers who combined for 122 starts and 872 tackles over the previous four seasons.
Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower formed one of the most productive linebacker triumvirates in program history, with Jewell earning consensus All-America honors last season.
All three were seniors last season and fans knew what to expect from Jewell and his two sidekicks, and they almost always delivered.
But with the returning linebackers, it’s impossible to know what to expect because they have done little besides play on special teams. Some of them have performed well on special teams, but that isn’t the same as performing well as an every-down linebacker.
Iowa rarely substituted at linebacker last season beyond using Kevin Ward, but he was also a senior last season.
The hope is that the returning linebackers learned from watching Jewell, Niemann and Bower and will be ready to not necessarily pick up where they left off because that would be asking a lot, but to hold their own and improve as the season progresses.
“You learn a lot, especially from guys like Josey, Ben, Bo and Kevin, not only just how to practice and how to operate and how to lead, but the way you carry yourself off the field as well,” Hockaday said this past Tuesday.
Iowa has six linebackers listed on the depth chart in the spring prospectus with Welch, Mends and Nick Niemann listed as the three starters. The three backups are Hockaday, Jones and Barrington Wade.
But to say that the spring depth chart is fluid would be an understatement.
Mends and Hockaday will both be seniors this fall, while Jones and Welch will both be juniors.
So it’s not a youth movement that is happening at linebacker, but rather a transition from one era to another.
Most of the linebackers are practicing at multiple linebacker positions this spring in order to see which of three spots fits them best.
Jones is listed as the backup to Mends at will linebacker, but Jones is also seeing action at middle linebacker, which is the spot vacated by Jewell.
“No one is set right now,” Jones said this past Tuesday. “We’re still moving everybody around. So I’ve been at both.”
Jones described the competition this spring as being really close. There probably isn’t another Jewell in the bunch, but there is a chance for the returning linebackers to gain power and strength in numbers.
“We're really not looking for somebody to step up like another Josey Jewell,” said Jones, who is a weight room fanatic and one of the strongest players on the team. “We’re not looking for that right now. We know we can’t get that back, so we have to come together collectively as a group and be prepared for anything.”
Jones was a standout on special teams last season, often delivering what he calls the boom. He still wants to play on the kickoff team, even if he secures a starting position.
“I loved it,” Jones said of being on the kickoff team. “That’s the start of the game. I’m the first one on the field. I should be the first one to make a tackle.
“I love kickoffs. If I get a chance to be on kickoff, I’ll still do what I do best and just run down there.”
Nick Niemann is the younger brother of Ben Niemann and poised to be the heir apparent to Ben’s position at outside linebacker. Nick is listed first on the spring depth chart at outside linebacker, ahead of Wade.
Nick Niemann is also a third-year sophomore, so he isn’t new to the college game.
As for a leader in the new group of linebackers, that also might be a group effort, especially until some of them step up and distinguish themselves on the field.
Jewell wasn’t considered a vocal leader as he led more by example and with his incredible play.
But Iowa doesn’t have a player of Jewell’s caliber who demands that kind of respect, so for now, it has to be leadership by committee.
“We’re not really trying to separate just one guy to be the leader of this group,” Jones said. “We’re just trying to come together and all stay together.”