Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann, Aaron Mends and Bo Bower are all returning linebackers to the University of Iowa football team this season.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s returning linebackers were down when position coach Jim Reid left for Boston College three days after the Rose Bowl, but they saw his replacement coming.
Seth Wallace worked as recruiting coordinator and spent two years helping defensive backs and linemen, so the Hawkeyes knew about his brand of organization and energy.
And Reid had prepared the unit for his departure, anyway.
“Coach Reid would tell us every day in meetings, ‘Hey, if I drop dead tomorrow, you guys should be able to run these meetings by yourself',” redshirt sophomore Aaron Mends said with a laugh at media day.
“He really said that. ‘Run the meetings anyways.’ And coach Wallace has done a great job since taking over, and he’s helped us to learn the entire defense.”
Reid served Iowa as linebackers coach for three seasons before returning to his home state to become a defensive coordinator again. Boston College got a big personality coming off a successful 40th season of collegiate coaching, and his young Hawkeye corps was left reeling.
In a rough start to 2016, how quickly could they regroup?
“Coach Reid was one-of-a-kind — in his 60s and sprinting around the field like he was 25,” outside linebacker Ben Niemann said. “Both coaches bring great energy though, and we’d all had a lot of interaction with coach Wallace before he came over, so it made the transition a lot more comfortable.
“We knew the type of guy he was, the type of coach he was, and what he was going to expect from us.”
Star Josey Jewell was a great place for a refreshed unit to start. The stalwart middle linebacker from Decorah made a team-high 126 tackles last season and returned a level of intensity and stability Wallace could build around. His understated — but important — buy-in ought to lift a relatively young meeting room.
It’s another link in the physical chain of Iowa’s linebacker legacy.
“That’s the way our program was built and I was built as a coach in this program,” Wallace said. “There’s proof that if you come here, do the right things, value hard work and value toughness, there’s no telling where it will take you. I can assure you it will be up.”
Jewell’s team-first mentality meant Wallace had a willing new student.
“They’re both great coaches, just have a little different coaching styles,” Jewell said. “It’s not really a huge change.
“(Wallace) is a detail-oriented kind of guy. He likes to nitpick on the small things, on footwork, anything.”
The redshirt junior standout has other role players coming back to a group that helped Iowa finish 22nd nationally in total defense for the last two seasons.
Niemann was eighth on the team as a sophomore, with 45 stops and three sacks. West Branch-native Bo Bower started 13 games as a redshirt freshman, but finished 2015 with just 15 tackles. Mends, a promising weak side linebacker, appears ready for action as a sturdy redshirt sophomore.
They’ll all compete for snaps to do clean-up work around Jewell.
“Without any older guys, we’ve got to be able to play in a lot of different spots if somebody goes down or needs to step in,” Niemann said. “We’ve all got a pretty good football IQ though, so it shouldn’t be an issue.”
Niemann and Mends occupied the top line on the depth chart through the offseason. Early practices showed Bower in the rotation for regular playing time.
“Mends has improved significantly and has given himself an opportunity to be in the mix,” Wallace said. “The race is pretty fluid there. We’ve got a chance to look at a handful of guys at the weak side linebacker spot, but the beauty of our defense is that it allows guys to have flexibility.”
Managing that race while developing the younger prospects will be Wallace’s biggest first-year challenge. Especially on a unit without any seniors, even if Jewell offers similar leadership.
After sophomore Jack Hockaday’s limited experience, every other linebacker on the roster has combined to record one collegiate tackle.
“We’re trying to do whatever helps the new guys out and makes them feel more comfortable,” Jewell said. “Being able to watch film with them is big and helps get them more comfortable with their reads and what they’re seeing. Every rep helps.”
The time the returning linebackers might have spent missing Reid has been moved to training their young reserves.
Jewell’s backup is redshirt freshman Angelo Garbutt, a 230-pound athlete with experience playing Texas Class 6A football. Garbutt’s classmate Nick Wilson — responsible for that one returning tackle from 2015 — is ahead of six true freshmen the Hawkeyes hope they don’t have to rush into action in 2016.
“It doesn’t get much deeper than the two-deep,” Wallace said. “There’s a clean break between the veterans and the younger guys, and because of that, they get to see other guys do it and bring them along.”
The process has pulled the veterans closer together, too. Mends was getting on-the-job training before the coaching transition, and had to adapt again in a hurry.
“If you just go to position meetings and practice and try to soak everything up, that won’t really be enough,” Mends said. “You’ve got to take initiative to do things on your own. That’s really what it takes to get to that next step — internal motivation.”
It helps that Wallace has replaced Reid with the returning players raring to go again.
“The move happened at the tail-end of recruiting, and I had all spring to work with them, so it’s not like I’ve been thrown into it,” Wallace said. “It’s been real good. But what’s made it real good are the guys I’ve got in that meeting room.”
Hawkeye Linebacker Depth Chart:
Name, class and 2015 statistics for the six linebackers on Iowa’s offseason two-deep.
OLB: Ben Niemann, junior, 45 tackles and 3 sacks in 14 GP; Bo Bower, redshirt junior, 15 tackles and 1 INT in 13 GP.
MLB: Josey Jewell, redshirt junior, 126 tackles and 4 INT in 14 GP; Angelo Garbutt, redshirt freshman.
WLB: Aaron Mends, redshirt sophomore, 4 tackles in 12 GP; Jack Hockday, sophomore, 2 tackles in 8 GP.