Leistikow: Jay Niemann becomes Iowa's Reese Morgan replacement plan

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Replacing what Reese Morgan brought to the Iowa football program for 19 years was going to be impossible.

But Kirk Ferentz had to try anyway.

And he’s found his man.

Former Northern Illinois and Rutgers defensive coordinator Jay Niemann will become Iowa's newest assistant coach, the university announced just before 9 p.m. Wednesday night.

In Niemann, Iowa is bringing aboard a veteran coach with an extensive defensive background and lifelong Iowa ties. And if his name sounds familiar, it should — his sons, Ben and Nick, have played under Ferentz; Nick is a junior linebacker.

Rutgers' defense ranked 72nd nationally in 2017 and 69th in 2018 under the direction of then-defensive coordinator Jay Niemann.

“We had an excellent pool of coaching candidates, but one clearly stood out. And that was Jay Niemann," Ferentz said in a news release. "Few coaches in college football today have Jay’s extensive defensive experience.

"I’ve had the good fortune to know Jay for years — first as a coach and then as a parent when we recruited both of his sons. In every instance, I’ve always been impressed with him."

While you can’t find another Reese Morgan on the shelf, Niemann at least appears to be a decent knock-off brand.

iemann, 58, will become an assistant defensive line coach (under Kelvin Bell, who was promoted into Morgan’s role as defensive line coach) while handling in-season defensive player evaluations on the recruiting trail. In the news release, Niemann was given the title of assistant recruiting coordinator.

Running backs coach Derrick Foster will handle in-season offensive player evaluations — a staff philosophy change that will allow director of recruiting Tyler Barnes and director of player personnel Scott Southmayd to run point on the Hawkeyes' recruiting operation.

From a media perspective, how much scrutiny is placed on a new assistant coach varies from hire to hire. A few paragraphs might do in some instances, but this one — in my opinion — deserves extra attention. Morgan was an institution. He tacked on legendary character to a legendary coaching record, both in high school and college, that spanned more than four decades.

Because of the prowess Morgan brought to the recruiting trail in and around our state’s borders — like uncovering priceless gems like Chad Greenway and Josey Jewell, not to mention the dozens of difference-making walk-ons — Ferentz couldn’t afford to screw this one up.

And on the surface, it seems like Niemann fills a lot of boxes that Morgan's departure left unchecked.

Niemann should begin Day 1 in Iowa City with an extensive in-state contact list.

He was born in Harlan and went to high school in Avoca. He went on to play for Iowa State from 1979 to 1982. He spent eight years coaching on Drake’s staff (1989 to 1996, including the last two years as defensive coordinator), five years with Northern Iowa (1997 to 2001, including two as defensive coordinator) and six more as the head coach at Simpson College (2002 to 2007, including one Division III playoff appearance).

Now that he’s joining Iowa, you could say he's hit for Iowa's Big Four cycle. It's hard to imagine finding many diverse in-state résumés like his.

As for the coaching expertise that Iowa is getting in Niemann?

That's harder to say, but he's been a survivor in the business who has experienced moderate success at every level. He was the defensive coordinator during Northern Illinois’ historic Orange Bowl season of 2012. The Huskies ranked 40th in FBS in total defense and ninth in sacks (with 40) that year, their best marks under Niemann's reign (2011 to 2015). In Niemann's final season in DeKalb, Northern Illinois ranked eighth nationally with 29 takeaways.

Iowa junior linebacker Nick Niemann (49) is competing for a starting spot this offseason. His father, Jay, will be the Hawkeyes' new assistant coach.

After three years as Rutgers’ defensive coordinator, Niemann’s contract was not renewed by head coach Chris Ash. You may be wondering: If he was let go by Rutgers, why would Iowa want him? Well, Rutgers' operation from the top has been an issue for years — that's not necessarily representative of what Niemann brings to the table. The Scarlet Knights ranked ninth in the Big Ten Conference in total defense (401.5 yards a game) last season.

Niemann became Wyoming’s linebackers coach in February, just weeks after being named a defensive analyst under Les Miles at Kansas. And now he’s on the move again.

Who could blame him for coming to Iowa City to be closer to his son? For being back in the Big Ten?

Iowa went young and out of the box with its previous assistant-coach hire in February 2018, grabbing early-30s Foster out of Samford University to help bolster recruiting in the South.

When it came to replacing Morgan, Iowa was never going to make the perfect pick.

But it made the sensible one.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Jay Niemann at a glance

Iowa origins: Born in Harlan and went to high school in Avoca, Niemann played linebacker at Iowa State from 1979 to 1982.

Family: Both sons signed with Iowa. Ben was a three-year starter at linebacker and now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. Nick is a junior linebacker for the Hawkeyes.

Coaching progression: 1985, Western Washington (special teams coordinator, linebackers); 1986-88, Washington (graduate assistant, secondary/linebackers); 1989-96, Drake (secondary, defensive coordinator); 1997-2001, Northern Iowa (secondary, linebackers, defensive coordinator); 2002-07, Simpson College (head coach); 2008-10, Hardin-Simmons (co-defensive coordinator); 2011-15, Northern Illinois (defensive coordinator/safeties); 2016-18, Rutgers (defensive coordinator/linebackers); 2019, Wyoming (linebackers).