Nick Niemann to bid farewell to Iowa football program that has become the family business

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa football games have been a fixture in Nick Niemann’s life for seven years, ever since he went on a recruiting visit with older brother Ben.

He watched Ben play in Kinnick Stadium for two years, then joined him here for two more. Ben went on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs just in time for their father, Jay, to get a job as an assistant coach on Kirk Ferentz’s staff at Iowa.

So you can understand why Nick Niemann feels a unique attachment to Hawkeye football after two seasons as a spectator and five as a linebacker. It’s been the family business. And a pleasure.

Iowa linebacker Nick Niemann celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter against USC during the Holiday Bowl on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, at the SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif.

“It’s a special place,” Nick Niemann said Tuesday as No. 18 Iowa (5-2) prepared for a 2:30 p.m. Saturday game against No. 25 Wisconsin (2-2). “I’m going to miss it when I’m gone for sure. But I’m happy my dad will hopefully still be here and give my family excuses to come back.”

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The finality of that statement by Niemann was no accident. Yes, he has a free year of eligibility if he wants to be a six-year college athlete. But, like most Hawkeye seniors interviewed this week, Niemann is eager to see what life holds for him outside the Iowa football complex. It certainly could include an NFL job like his brother has.

“This will be it for me,” Niemann said when asked if Saturday will be his final appearance in Kinnick. “It’ll be in my best interest to move on and try to pursue the NFL after this season.”

There are 22 seniors on Iowa’s roster, and Ferentz said he hasn’t discussed the future with any of them. But kicker Keith Duncan, an all-American last year, said he definitely is leaving after the season. Offensive tackle Alaric Jackson, a four-year starter, has nothing left to prove at this level either. Cornerback Matt Hankins was noncommittal about his plans for 2021 but was quick to assert that he believes he is good enough for the next level.

Even underclassmen such as defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon and center Tyler Linderbaum will have decisions to make. Both are playing at all-American levels.

If the point of college is to prepare young adults for their careers, plenty of Hawkeye football players have made the best use of their time here.

Niemann is among those, taking flight in his fifth year to lead the Hawkeyes in tackles with 69 as he looks ahead to another matchup with the Badgers, a team no current Iowa player has defeated. If that’s not incentive enough, it was during Iowa’s last home game against Wisconsin that Niemann suffered his most humbling moment.

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Niemann, starting at outside linebacker in September 2018, had a then-career-high 10 tackles in that game. But it was one that he couldn’t make that ended up changing Iowa’s defensive philosophy. Niemann lost Badgers wide receiver A.J. Taylor in coverage on a 17-yard touchdown with 57 seconds left that became the game-winning score. To add insult, Niemann injured his leg on the final play of the game as he tried in vain to chase down Wisconsin running back Alec Ingold on a 33-yard scoring run.

As Niemann nursed his injury, Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker decided he needed to put in a 4-2-5 scheme in order to better contend with spread offenses. That meant one more safety, one fewer linebacker.

Niemann soldiered on, making 43 tackles in 2018 and another 32 last year, when he was relegated to backup duty for five games. In Iowa’s Holiday Bowl win over USC, it was Niemann who punctuated things with an interception he returned 25 yards for a touchdown. The smile he wore in that postgame celebration provided an indelible image of his Hawkeye career.

In his Iowa finale, Niemann has been asked to lead a young linebacking group, even starting the season-opener at Purdue at middle linebacker when the Hawkeyes were short-handed.

Niemann was in on 17 tackles when Iowa snapped a six-game losing streak to Penn State. It was the most by a Hawkeye since Anthony Hitchens had 19 against Iowa State in 2012. Niemann’s 69 total tackles ranks second in the Big Ten.

Ferentz, as he often does, went on a brief jaunt down memory lane when asked about the Niemanns on Tuesday. He joked that he wished Jay and Lou Ann Niemann had produced another son or two. He said he “felt like a kidnapper” when he originally lured Ben Niemann away from Northern Illinois, where Jay was then coaching.

“He's playing at a really high level now as a senior. One of our leaders certainly, a captain every week,” Ferentz said of Nick Niemann.

“The other commonality with both (Niemann brothers) is they're tremendous people, great young guys to have on the team, great guys to work with on a daily basis. You love having them in the building.”

Nick Niemann would love to leave the building with the Heartland Trophy inside it for the first time since 2015. Iowa has dominated border rivals Minnesota and Nebraska during his career. But the Badgers have been a thorn, beating the Hawkeyes at what they like to view as their own brand of “smashmouth football.”

“They’re going to try to run the ball right down the middle of the field on the defense. And if you can’t stop that, you’re going to be in trouble,” Niemann said.

“There’s Big Ten West bragging rights on the line. … Not having beaten them so far, there’s definitely something a little extra there."

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.