IOWA CITY, Ia. — Bo Bower and Ben Niemann started all 13 games at outside linebacker for Iowa last season, combining for 160 tackles.
So you’d think they’d be sitting comfortably atop the Hawkeye depth chart heading into their senior seasons.
Not so fast.
“You never can get complacent or comfortable because there’s guys behind you competing at every spot in the linebacker room,” Niemann said Tuesday.
“Honestly, you really can’t ever arrive. If you have that mentality, then you’re not improving as a football player and helping the team get better.”
Bower went one step further.
“You’re always looking over your shoulder. We always have to compete because there’s always guys trying to take a job,” Bower said.
“All of them. All of them will be ready to play,” Bower concluded.
There’s nothing to suggest that Iowa’s senior trio of returning starters at linebacker — which includes preseason all-American Josey Jewell in the middle — should be worried about their job security. Indeed, the linebackers figure to be the strength of the defense, if not the entire team, this fall.
But the depth chart Iowa released this spring tellingly included three names at each linebacker spot, the only position group where that occurred. Bower and Niemann said they’re approaching the season as if they still have to prove themselves.
Niemann said the veterans are even trying to master all three linebacker positions so they can improve on-field communication and tutor each other as needed.
“We’ll play faster, communicate better. Our understanding will be at that next level,” Niemann predicted.
Bower, a West Branch native, started as Iowa’s strongside linebacker as a redshirt freshman in 2014, then lost his starting spot as a sophomore. Last summer, he re-emerged to grab the reins on the weakside and grew noticeably more confident there as the season went on.
“I think I grew last year for sure,” Bower said. “Preparing better, watching film better. Lifestyle outside of football, handling class and football at the same time, that’s always a challenge.”
Bower is four credits away from earning his degree in geographical information sciences, which will make for a light class load that will enable him to concentrate more on football during his fifth fall in Iowa City.
He said he has a much better understanding of the defense now, which will benefit him once the games begin.
“If you know what you’re doing, then you can play fast. That’s the key,” Bower said.
Niemann said Bower has been a top performer this summer in the competitions that occur during workouts, like timed sled sprints and body-weight bench tests. Niemann, an Illinois native, has typically relied more on his speed at his strongside spot, but also has been frequently dinged by injury. He even missed time during spring practices, but announced himself 100 percent healthy as his final college training camp nears.
His goal is for the linebackers to set the tone for the defense and to create more havoc than a season ago, when the starters combined for one interception and two forced fumbles.
“I think that starts on the practice field, really, just having that focus of trying to strip balls, scoop fumbles,” Niemann said.
“I think guys on the defense are definitely going to look to us, and that’s a role we have to embrace, take full throttle, just leading everybody and giving it our all every play. … We want them to look to us and see how we do things.”