Versatile Iowa linebacker group ready to be foundation of Hawkeyes' 2021 defense
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Statistically, Iowa's defense has been among the nation's best over the past decade. Since 2010, the Hawkeyes have finished in the top 25 in total defense eight times, including three top-10 finishes.
In 2020, they finished sixth in country, surrendering only 16 points and 313 yards per game. No question it's a collaborative effort. But ask veteran Jack Campbell and he'll tell you that a lot it starts in the middle at linebacker.
"All three (linebacker) positions are vitally important to the defense," Campbell said. "I feel like the Hawkeye defense at the core is all going to start with that linebacker room. I'm excited to see what we do in these final weeks of July and into the season."
Campbell, a preseason All-Big Ten selection, is entering his second season starting at weakside linebacker. His emergence last season with a full offseason this year is one big reason why the linebacker core is expected to perform at a high level.
At inside linebacker, junior Seth Benson is another returning starter who earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors last season. Like Campbell, he has high expectations for the group and is excited about the competition level at the position so far.
"Each and every day we're competing as a group," Benson said. "Everyone has abilities and we're just pushing each other to be the best. Iron sharpens iron."
Benson and Campbell rotated at middle linebacker last year and are expected to play the bulk of the snaps this year in Iowa's 4-2-5 base defensive scheme.
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The Hawkeyes lost Nick Niemann to the draft but linebackers coach and assistant defensive coordinator Seth Wallace tabbed sophomore Jestin Jacobs as the third linebacker who is setting himself apart from the group.
"Any of those three guys can play any of the three positions," Wallace said. "Those guys are well-versed in what we do defensively that I'm comfortable with any of the three on the field at any time."
The ability to insert any player at any position is critical. Wallace and defensive coordinator Phil Parker have emphasized linebacker position flexibility over the last few years.
Wallace recalled a time in 2017 when then-star linebacker Josey Jewell went down with an injury before the Northwestern game. At that time, position flexibility wasn't a priority and performance suffered; Iowa fell to Northwestern 17-10 that year.
Last season, the importance of plug-and-play was on full display with the unexpected variables of playing through a pandemic. At any moment a player could've contracted the virus or be forced to sit out due to contact tracing.
"(We've been) trying to create position flexibility amongst the entire group of linebackers since that 2017 season, because of what happened when Josey went down," Wallace said. "I think we've done a really good job defensively in trying to create some flexibility there."
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In their top three linebackers, Wallace says each have one unique quality that will help the Iowa defense remain in college football's elite: Benson's ability to find the football, Campbell's size and Jacobs' athleticism.
The talent at linebacker doesn't stop with them, however. Wallace sees opportunities for several others in the room.
"You're going to see them out on the field as well," Wallace said. "The Mike Timms of the world, Kyler Fisher is a defensive back that we've moved down to linebacker and had a great spring. Jay Higgins, Logan Klemp has been around for a while and then of course the guys who came last year."
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This spring and summer, the linebackers have continued to cross train at every position, which is not only helping elevate their skill level but also their continuity with each other.
And they're hoping that will make all the difference come fall.
"The more knowledge you have the faster you can play," Benson said. "Knowing that each guy knows what I'm doing, I know what he's doing at any position just helps us grow together."
Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org