'Family' of Iowa linebackers motivated to make amends for 2014's issues

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Jim Reid knows he has good guys in the linebackers' room at Iowa's Football Operations Center.

"These are guys that you really get down on your knees and pray that your daughter brings home, honestly," Reid said. "You'd be very proud to call them your sons."

Or grandsons, Iowa's 64-year-old linebackers coach clarified. But "do it right" guys don't necessarily mean guys that win in the Big Ten Conference.

After the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer slaying by Tennessee, Ben Niemann, Bo Bower, Josey Jewell, Cole Fisher, Travis Perry and maybe Aaron Mends want to prove that good guys don't finish anywhere close to last.

Bower became the scapegoat for the bowl-game disappointment. Younger, faster, hungrier Tennessee scored 28 points before even facing a third down against a flailing Iowa defense. Bower was benched in favor of Niemann in the second half of that game.

The former walk-on from West Branch uses that day as motivation, seven months later.

"I definitely did not have near even a good game, honestly," Bower said Aug. 8 at the Hawkeyes' media day. "For my spot and what I did, I think I was completely off."

Six days after the 45-28 loss (it wasn't really that close), head coach Kirk Ferentz came out with an unprecedented January depth chart. Bower had been replaced by Neimann at starting outside linebacker spot — and moved inside, to starting weakside linebacker.

The shake-up seems to have been good for both individuals.

"I have to play at the line of scrimmage against tight ends and pulling guards, but I also have to be good in pass coverage and run with slot receivers," said Niemann, who is up 20 pounds to 225 in one year on campus. "It's a little different position, but I like it."

Niemann is being backed up by Fisher; middle linebacker Jewell by Perry; and Bower by Mends. But Reid, who now has the linebackers to himself with LeVar Woods sliding to coach tight ends and special teams, anticipates position flexibility among all six of them.

Reid thinks the unit will be better than 2014, not just because of on-paper changes.

"I know this is going to sound like a cliché, but every single guy that we brought back," Reid said, "has done exactly what we asked them to do, which is don't be afraid to make a mistake."

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker counted 65 big plays in 2014, 30 more than the previous year when Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey were senior studs at linebacker.

The big-play issue began in Game 1, when former Northern Iowa running back David Johnson got behind Iowa's linebackers for 203 receiving yards in a game the Hawkeyes escaped, 31-23. Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Tennessee all had their way with Iowa's linebackers, too, particularly in the perimeter running game.

The bad taste of 7-6 has lingered, but it's also helped.

"It's just motivated all of us to get better," Bower said, "whether that be more film, getting together, running plays by ourselves, just doing all the little things, honestly, just the detail stuff."

Ferentz has said five linebackers are interchangeable in a rotation to be determined, with Mends perhaps as the wild card and special-teams ace. Niemann, Jewell and Bower were primarily with the first team in Saturday's open practice at Kinnick Stadium.

Reid emphasizes that defensive failures are an 11-man responsibility, not just the linebackers — even if they take most of the blame.

Practice statistics don't mean a ton, but Iowa's defense collectively owned the offense as the season approaches. In roughly four hours of public scrimmages at Valley and Kinnick stadiums since April, the first-team defense held the first-team offense without a touchdown.

You bet, the linebackers are taking this season personally.

"I'm with the best friends I'll have for the rest of my life," Bower said. "I think we've really become a family. All of these guys are going to do really well."