Leistikow: The fast evolution and bright future of Iowa's linebackers room
Back on the Iowa football team’s media days in early October, defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s introductory comments perked up some ears. The 22nd-year Hawkeye assistant coach identified linebackers as “probably our biggest strength” on defense.
Until that point, linebackers were classified as a question mark at best, a weakness at worst. Iowa had unexpectedly lost two starters in the offseason: Weak-side linebacker Djimon Colbert opted out over COVID-19 concerns; and middle linebacker Dillon Doyle transferred to Baylor after his father’s removal as strength and conditioning coach.
But (probably no surprise, given his track record) … Parker was proven correct.
Iowa’s linebackers have been one of many defensive strengths, and the room under position coach/assistant defensive coordinator Seth Wallace looks good now (amid the 4-2 Hawkeyes’ four-game win streak) and perhaps even better in the future.
How did this young group come together?
It helps to have a veteran, steadying force. And although Nick Niemann was an odd man out a year ago — an outside linebacker without a steady home in Iowa’s 4-2-5 base defense — he revealed his potential in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl against USC. Plugged in at weak-side linebacker after Colbert was benched, Niemann made his presence felt with a second-half sack and a pick-six touchdown that punctuated Iowa’s 49-24 win.
Coaches knew then that Niemann could be one of their leaders in 2020.
All Niemann has done through six games is rack up 61 tackles — second-most in the Big Ten Conference — and bring a physical edge in his 6-foot-4, 233-pound frame. He had 17 punishing tackles at Penn State, the most by a Hawkeye since 2012. The son of a coach and brother of a Super Bowl champion has everything clicking as a fifth-year senior.
“Very focused, very detail-oriented," second-year sophomore Jack Campbell says. “He’s someone all the guys look up to."
Fifth-year senior Barrington Wade has stuck with the program and waited his turn. As the outside linebacker, Wade sometimes doesn't see a ton of snaps, but he's brought some heft (6-1, 236) when Iowa rolls out its 4-3 defense. Wade has delivered two interceptions, to boot.
But as we saw against Purdue, a Niemann-Wade tandem wasn’t enough. Those two were pressed into unfamiliar duty in the season opener — Niemann at middle linebacker for the first time, Wade at weak-side. And Purdue’s surprising ability to run the football in the second half turned the tide in that 24-20 Boilermakers win.
It’s pretty safe to say that the result would’ve been different if either Campbell (the preseason No. 1 middle linebacker) or Seth Benson (the No. 2) hadn’t been ruled out of that game with illnesses.
We saw the following week against Northwestern what kind of closing speed Benson (6-0, 231) can offer. The redshirt sophomore led the team in tackles in each of his first three starts.
“He's not the biggest guy in the world,” head coach Kirk Ferentz says, “but he's a heck of a football player.”
And then in Week 4 at Minnesota, we began to understand why Parker was raving about the linebackers a month earlier. Campbell’s presence in limited snaps (after missing three games with mononucleosis) was noticeable. Campbell (6-5, 243) says he's 100% now. And he was downright dominant in the second half of Iowa’s 26-20 win against Nebraska.
Four days later, Ferentz was making comparisons between Campbell and Chad Greenway — the only linebacker of the Ferentz era to become a first-round NFL Draft pick. Greenway had the size; had the speed; and had a deep passion for the game … attributes Campbell seems to have.
To relay the Campbell/Greenway comparison, Ferentz referenced what he saw in then-true freshman Greenway after Iowa’s 2000 win against Northwestern.
“It was big win for us. We didn't have many back then, that's for sure. And I just remember seeing (Greenway) in the back of the locker room, and seeing his face, he looked like he had played in the game,” Ferentz said. “He was so wrapped up and so enthused.
“There are some guys that just kind of strike you that way, and it's like, ‘I don't know who that guy is, but we need him on our team.’ And it worked out pretty well. Jack Campbell has kind of got that same (vibe)."
Hard-driving Seth Wallace deserves credit for the linebackers' rise.
While Parker is the leader of another stingy defense (Iowa’s 4.46 yards-per-play allowed ranks third among Power Five schools with at least five games played, just 0.02 behind leader West Virginia), Wallace is his right-hand man.
Wallace teaches his linebackers to strive for perfection that he knows they can’t reach. It’s his way of reminding them there is always room for improvement.
“Every single rep we watch on film, every rep in practice on the field,” Niemann says, “he’s not going to let anyone get by without trying to make them give their best effort.”
Adds Campbell: “I owe him a lot. Every day, he’s pushing me to get better. Never allowing me to get complacent, which I really appreciate. Some days, it’s not too fun. But I know it’s for my best and the team’s best.”
Looking ahead ... even assuming Niemann and Wade move on, the linebackers room is coachable and well-positioned for a bright future. Campbell and Benson have shown their skills, but coaches believe redshirt freshman Jestin Jacobs (6-4, 235) isn’t far behind. The highly acclaimed recruit that stuck with Iowa despite an Ohio State scholarship offer is poised to contend for a starting spot in 2021.
Campbell, Benson and Jacobs are being trained at each of the three linebacker positions, which should give Parker myriad options next season. Heck, Campbell has the size and tenacity that could make him a dynamic defensive end — a likely position of need in 2021.
And keep an eye on true freshman Jay Higgins (6-2, 219). The Indianapolis native has impressed coaches and teammates, on and off the field.
“He’s very far along mentally for a freshman, when it comes to understanding the defense,” Niemann says. “A lot farther than I was (as a freshman).”
As for Saturday’s game at Illinois (2:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1)? Ferentz wasn’t saying Tuesday how the rotation of Benson and Campbell would continue to play out.
But he did say this — a reflection of how his team's gone from zero proven linebackers to four in a short block of time.
“I don't know how you sit either of them down,” Ferentz says. “It's a good problem to have.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.