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Iowa linebacker Kristian Welch knows he has big shoes to fill, but is more focused on getting better this spring Mark Emmert/HawkCentral

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Seth Wallace remembers the icy drive into the Wisconsin woods, where he may have uncovered Iowa’s next starting middle linebacker.

“You hear people talking about a good-sized athlete in a small town. Nobody wants to drive 20 miles north of Stevens Point. It’s not a fun drive,” Wallace told reporters Tuesday of that visit to Iola, Wisconsin, population 1,300.

The weather was so bad that school was canceled at Iola-Scandinavia. Wallace, the Hawkeyes’ linebackers coach, pressed on, accompanied by defensive coordinator Phil Parker. It was a 5 ½-hour trip.

“You just try to get off the beaten path. It’s kind of the history of this program recruiting-wise,” Wallace said.

At the other end, Kristian Welch was waiting for an Iowa coaching staff that gave him his only major-college scholarship offer (North Dakota State and Bowling Green were others interested).

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Welch has waited for two years since, picking up time on Iowa’s special teams while Josey Jewell roamed the middle of the defense.

His waiting may be over.

“Now’s his opportunity where there’s a blank canvas for him to start painting his own pictures,” Wallace said.

Replacing a legend

Replacing a legend is never easy. Jewell, in particular, looms large in Hawkeye lore — the under-recruited kid out of Decorah who ended up starting for three seasons at middle linebacker, earning unanimous all-American honors in the final one.

Welch's number, 34, is even the inverse of Jewell's 43. The comparisons will be inevitable, whether that's fair or not.

Welch, at 6-foot-3, 238 pounds, enters spring practices for his junior season at the top of the depth chart at middle linebacker. That would make him Jewell’s heir apparent. That would bring an undeniable pressure to perform.

But Welch said Tuesday he’s not feeling it.

“Absolutely, I’m aware of that, but that’s not my focus at this point,” Welch said. “Just to continue to improve, to be the best that I can be and also cohesively work within the defense to become a better leader.

“Josey’s been a really good player to play behind, but I’m not trying to be Josey. I’m trying to step into that position.”

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Moving to the middle

Welch arrived in Iowa City in 2016 and was impressive enough to play on special teams as a true freshman. He first learned to play outside linebacker, before Wallace decided to move him inside.

Last season, Welch was listed as Jewell’s backup, along with Jack Hockaday. But when Jewell missed the Northwestern game with a shoulder injury, Wallace chose to move Ben Niemann from outside linebacker to man the middle rather than start Welch.

“Some guys, they don’t necessarily see the big picture,” Wallace said Tuesday, an indication that Welch may not have been far enough along mentally to handle the demands of the middle linebacker position.

That’s what Welch is working on this spring, what he called “the vocal stuff you have to know.”

“I want to be that leader. I want to step into that role and be able to make those adjustments to help our defense,” he said.

It's the same trajectory that Scott Erickson saw Welch make in high school. Erickson has coached at Iola-Scandinavia for 25 years. Among his former athletes was a quarterback named Tim Polasek, who now coaches Iowa's offensive line. Small world.

Erickson said Polasek and Welch share an immense competitive desire.

“Kristian is going to give everything he’s got all the time. He studies and he’s focused. I always tell kids who say they want to play college football: 'You’ve got the potential, but do you love it?' Kristian, that’s his life," Erickson said. "Everything he does revolves around getting better as an athlete."

Welch was good enough to start at linebacker and running back as a freshman at Iola, a rare feat even at a school that small. He started at outside linebacker, then moved inside, much like at Iowa.

Erickson said Welch still makes time to come into his high school weight room for workouts when he's home on break. He goes on runs with the current players.

“He’s always encouraging. He comes in and does some speed training in the morning," Erickson said. "His presence means a lot to our players to see him back and to see him part of it yet. He’s never too big to be part of it. He's a natural leader."

Hockaday, a senior, is listed as Welch’s backup. Wallace said junior weakside linebacker Amani Jones has also been getting repetitions in the middle. He said it’s far from a two-man race for that spot, and it’s far from decided. Wallace even hinted that the Hawkeyes may rotate players through the linebacker positions during games, similar to the approach they’ve taken on the defensive line.

That would be a huge departure after Iowa leaned almost exclusively on Jewell, Niemann and Bo Bower the past three years.

“We’ve got to be able to move guys around. The beauty of what we do defensively is there is some flexibility there,” Wallace said. “You haven’t seen it much because we’ve kind of been in a groove with the guys we’ve had in the past.”

Why Welch is first choice

Welch is getting the early nod at middle linebacker because of his size, ability to change directions and his spatial awareness. He said he believes he has the strength and speed to thrive in the role. His biggest challenge is getting his pad level low enough.

The competition has been intense this spring as the Hawkeyes look to replace all three starting linebackers.

“It’s every day and every snap,” said Welch, who clearly enjoys the challenge.

Welch made six tackles last year. He made his first career interception late in the blowout win at Nebraska that ended the regular season. He returned that 33 yards. It whet his appetite for the chance to be a two-year starter at a vital position.

“I’m just trying to focus on myself and the teammates around me, trying to get on the same page,” Welch said. “We’re not trying to be them (Jewell, Niemann and Bower). But just to improve every day.”

Wallace said his biggest challenge of the past two seasons has been trying to keep players like Welch, Hockaday, Jones and Aaron Mends embracing practice sessions while knowing there was little chance to get into games. Using them on special teams helped.

“You just try to keep them engaged, and keep them out there with a purpose,” Wallace said.

“They’re further ahead than probably a lot of people give them credit for, including myself.”

That’s what Welch is hoping to prove next. Then he can worry about being constantly compared to Jewell.

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