Iowa linebackers still learning on the job, and it shows
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Sometimes, it seems as if Bo Bower is on a treadmill.
As a freshman linebacker for the Iowa football team, Bower is going full speed and going nowhere, all at the same time.
"Always trying to improve," he said. "I think we've done that.
"As the games go on, we know what we need to improve on and the different things we need to look at."
The former walk-on from West Branch is one of three first-year starters at linebacker — along with senior Quinton Alston and the weak-side duo of Josey Jewell and Reggie Spearman — making the middle of Iowa's defense impressionable and vulnerable.
While Bower and company try to keep pace, they've been facing an uphill challenge of replacing three NFL-caliber predecessors: Anthony Hitchens (Dallas Cowboys), James Morris (New England Patriots) and Christian Kirksey (Cleveland Browns).
"We're not as good at linebacker as we were a year ago," coach Kirk Ferentz said during his Tuesday press conference. "We knew that in August, actually knew it in January.
"That's college football. You're always having change and evolution."
The Hawkeyes figured to compensate with a stout front four, as well as a mix of experience and potential in the secondary.
Results have been spotty, especially when it comes to stopping the run.
In five Big Ten games, Iowa has allowed an average of 201.6 rushing yards. Ball carriers are netting 4.6 yards per attempt, with 10 touchdowns.
"So far, I feel it's been kind of like a roller-coaster ride," Alston said. "One week, we'll be really good. The next week, we'll be a little bit undisciplined with our calls and assignments.
"It's pretty frustrating, but we've just got to keep going back to work."
Bower drew praise with an interception in the season opener against Northern Iowa and made another pick against Indiana.
He's also been sent on blitzes, taken out by blockers and barked at by teammates.
Senior safety John Lowdermilk was seen expressing his disappointment to a couple different freshmen during last weekend's 51-14 loss at Minnesota.
"It was just frustration," Lowdermilk said Tuesday. "I think everybody out there was frustrated, (but) we've got to eliminate that.
"That doesn't really help anything."
A little tough love can go a long way. So does accountability.
"We can make their jobs easier in the back end," Lowdermilk said. "Giving them the calls, being loud and vocal.
"Communicating with them so they're not thinking so much. They can just play and run."
The Hawkeyes may get a boost this week when Spearman returns from a two-game suspension after an OWI arrest.
Spearman and Jewell are expected to split snaps, while Alston mans the middle and Bower handles outside linebacking duties. Travis Perry, who had started for Spearman the last two weeks, suffered a season-ending injury against Minnesota.
"I think the schemes we have work," Bower said. "You just have to execute them."
Two years ago, Hitchens, Morris and Kirksey shouldered more responsibility as Iowa endured growing pains on the defensive line.
Now, it's time for Hawkeye veterans to return the favor.
"Those guys, Chris, Hitch and James, have been unbelievable mentors to us," Bower said. "Just trying to fill some shoes that are really big.
"We're just doing our best."