Iowa linebackers — heavy-duty competition for group light on experience

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Aaron Mends was a designated edge rusher in Iowa’s Raider defense and blocked a punt back in 2015.

Jack Hockaday played nearly the entire 2016 opener at middle linebacker after Josey Jewell was disqualified for targeting. Kristian Welch had a 33-yard interception return in the 2017 regular-season finale. Amani Jones had a nifty 15-yard kickoff return last year.

Other than those random moments, there’s nothing listed on each player’s football resume but a name, dimensions and blank space. Sure, they all saw time on special teams or hit a few opponents in garbage duty. But for real game action, their contributions are more footnotes than line items.

“We really don’t have a guy with significant game experience at the linebacker position,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “So it’s anybody’s ballgame right now. Some guys have a lot of position flexibility, the other guys maybe not as much. The key thing for us right now is to figure out who the best three are and then where can we put them most effectively. Then if we can find a fourth guy, fifth guy, sixth guy, just kind of take it as that.”

Iowa unveiled its first spring depth chart Tuesday, which has more of a bearing on who stands in line first during warmups than who marches out in Kinnick Stadium against Northern Illinois on Sept. 1. Welch and Mends are designated as starters at middle linebacker and weakside linebacker, while sophomore Nick Niemann opened on the first team at outside linebacker.

First team Second team
MLB Kristian Welch, jr., 6-3, 238 Jack Hockaday, sr., 6-1, 235
WLB Aaron Mends, sr., 6-0, 228 Amani Jones, jr., 6-0, 238
OLB Nick Niemann, soph., 6-4, 232 Barrington Wade, soph., 6-1, 233

The Hawkeyes must replace three linebackers with a combined 122 starts — at least three seasons each as starter. The most difficult player to follow is Jewell, who was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous first-team All-American. Ben Niemann, Nick’s older brother, opened 40 games, including 39 at outside linebacker. Bo Bower had 39 starts with 26 at weakside.

Ferentz emphasizes the depth chart is just a starting point and nothing has been decided. It’s likely all of these battles ultimately are decided in August but separation could start taking place during the spring.

“We’ll see what the 15 days bring,” Ferentz said. “We’re not going to make any rash decisions right off the bat. But at the same time we have to start putting guys in the proper spot. So that really is up to them right now, the players.

“Like every position, basically players determine what the depth chart’s going to be. And I think the biggest thing we have to do as coaches is make sure we don’t put them in a position where it’s not realistic for them to have success. That’s part of our job to figure out what position can we line a guy up to have the most opportunity for success. Then they’ve got to take it from there.”

In August 2015, Bower was listed as the starting weakside linebacker with Mends as his backup. During that training camp, Cole Fisher came on strong and won the position. Fisher finished second on the team with 116 tackles and was a valuable performer for a 12-win squad. Fisher broke up a fourth-down pass to preserve a win at Wisconsin that ultimately decided the Big Ten West Division title.

“So what we see in practice, how guys come on, everybody’s got an equal opportunity right now to earn playing time,” Ferentz said. “I’m anxious to see how it goes. You know, two, three years ago I guess at this time, Cole Fisher was a guy that we weren’t counting on, and ended up playing really well as a fifth-year senior. So you have those kinds of examples.”

There’s no reason to rule out freshmen Djimon Colbert, Nate Wieland or Dillon Doyle from making a move this spring or junior college transfer Nick Anderson. Or a player such as Jones sliding to a different spot and starting. If the past has provided a precedent, it’s that competition will determine the starter and dislodging that starter is next-to-impossible. So that makes the next month of practices vital for the participants and the coaching staff.

The post Iowa linebackers — heavy-duty competition for group light on experience appeared first on Land of 10.

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