TAMPA, Fla. — Iowa linebackers have to earn their reputations, from those who played the position before them and those who follow in their footsteps.
The current trio of Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann haven’t arrived yet, but they know what word they would love to hear applied to themselves.
It’s how Bower and Jewell describe the Hawkeye hero of their childhood, Pat Angerer.
“'Savage' is a pretty high compliment,” Bower said Friday as he and his teammates prepare to face Florida in Monday’s Outback Bowl (noon, ABC). “To be a linebacker you have to be aggressive, and I think that all of us are. Angerer was extremely aggressive, and I think we all have that kind of trait in us.”
No one — least of all defensive coordinator Phil Parker — is ready to anoint the Jewell-Bower-Niemann trio yet. There’s too much left to prove before they can be mentioned among top Hawkeye units of recent vintage. That category would include Chad Greenway-Abdul Hodge-Grant Steen (2003), Angerer-A.J. Edds-Jeremiha Hunter (2009), and Anthony Hitchens-Christian Kirksey-James Morris (2013).
“To say that they’re at that level right now, that would be hard. I think they’ve got a ways to go to get there,” Parker said of his current group Friday. “They’ve got a chance. I think Josey, he’s really done a good job and I think the two other guys are not as probably as far along as maybe Josey is.”
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The good news for Parker is that all three starting linebackers will get one more season together to try to prove their savagery. Jewell, the junior middle linebacker and the star of the group, has said he will not enter the NFL Draft after piling up a team-leading 114 tackles this season and being named a Butkus Award finalist.
Jewell is the catalyst for everything Iowa does on defense, and Niemann and Bower both benefit.
“He’s a great leader in the meeting room and the classroom. He just really as a unit brings us closer together,” Niemann said of Jewell. “You watch him on tape, he just goes hard all the time. He’s never taking plays off. He plays with a lot of passion.”
Niemann, also a junior, had to work his way back into playing shape as the Hawkeyes’ outside linebacker as the 2016 season began. He was battling a high ankle sprain and also had offseason shoulder surgery, and it was odd to see him have to be subbed out occasionally in the early going. That hasn’t been a problem lately, though. Niemann finished with 66 tackles.
By the time Iowa’s season ended with three consecutive wins, in which the defense allowed a total of 23 points, the Hawkeye linebackers were the iron men fans have grown accustomed to seeing. Backups such as Jack Hockaday and Aaron Mends rarely saw the field.
“I think we kind of like that, just because you’re in the flow of the game,” Niemann said.
“I like staying out there the whole time. I think we all do. So, yeah, we take pride in that, I would say.”
Bower has traveled the furthest among the trio. The junior was a starter at outside linebacker as a freshman, and then famously lost that spot to Niemann during the TaxSlayer Bowl blowout that ended that season. In 2015, Bower had to readjust to life as a backup and was in on only 15 tackles.
This spring, he fell behind Aaron Mends at the weakside, or “Will,” linebacker spot. In August camp, though, Bower overtook Mends and emerged as the surprise starter.
“He could have been discouraged, pouted, all that kind of stuff, and he probably did it. But he did it on his own time, not ours. With us, it was all positive, good effort, good attitude,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Bower’s transformation. “It's really good to see him out there playing well like he is.”
Bower finished second on the team with 88 tackles, but it wasn’t a smooth ride. He was victimized repeatedly in Iowa’s 41-14 loss at Penn State as November dawned, and then made as many strides as anyone on the team in the final three games. Bower was nearly flawless while making nine tackles in a season-ending, 40-10 victory over Nebraska.
“He’s just getting more and more comfortable. It’s a different picture in the box vs. out on the perimeter,” Niemann said of Bower. “His tackling really improved. He made some really good open-field tackles there, especially in that Nebraska game.”
None of Iowa’s linebackers is looking at Monday’s bowl game as a springboard into next season. The primary goal is just to notch a postseason win for the first time since 2010.
But there’s little question that a strong performance by the linebackers against Florida would signal that the trio is ready to take on a bigger challenge in 2017, to perhaps notch their names in Hawkeye lore. Iowa loses senior stars in Jaleel Johnson on the defensive line and Desmond King in the secondary. Only the linebacker corps figures to enter spring practices as a position group without question marks.
“We’ve got to take full advantage of it and try to help the team the best we possibly can,” Jewell said.
Added Bower: “We can get better. There’s always more to get better at. … Coach always says, ‘Leave the jersey in a better place.’ That’s what we’re trying to do.
“The past Hawkeye linebackers that have come before us, we want to make them proud by representing that jersey in the right and positive way, on and off the field.”