The junior is key to the Hawkeyes' defense.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — You have to look outside the hash marks to find the secret player that makes Iowa’s base 4-3 defense work — or, sometimes, not work.
This player needs power to fight off an offensive lineman to stack up a running play.
He needs speed, because he's often matched up against a tight end or star receiver — and be expected to cover him stride for stride — or sent on a quarterback blitz.
He needs assignment savvy to keep outside running plays and screen passes from turning into big gains.
He is the Hawkeyes’ outside linebacker — in football parlance called the “Leo” — and under Kirk Ferentz and Norm/Phil Parker is essential to the entire operation.
“It’s kind of a spot that can go unnoticed at times,” says this year’s Leo, second-year starter Ben Niemann, “just because you don’t have the same numbers that the inside guys have. You have to just be fine with that, and do your job.”
Iowa's interior linebackers (think Abdul Hodge, Pat Angerer, James Morris and now Josey Jewell) rack up big tackle numbers.
But outside linebackers do it all.
Niemann is trying to carry on a great tradition of Leos at Iowa and he gets reminders of them all the time in the film room.
The third-year junior studies the play of Iowa’s two most recent three-year starters at outside linebacker — A.J. Edds from 2007 to 2009 and Christian Kirskey from 2011 to 2013.
“Both those guys, they’re just athletes on the edge,” Niemann says. “They did a good job setting the edge on the defense. They’re both great leaders, too, and they just flew around the football field.”
Before them, Iowa had Grant Steen and Chad Greenway in versatile linebacker roles (Greenway was listed as a weak-side linebacker at Iowa, but was often utilized in pass coverage and has enjoyed a long NFL career at Leo with the Minnesota Vikings).
Steen and Greenway are program icons, but came before Niemann’s time. That’s why he zeroes in on Kirksey, who at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds owns a similar build to Niemann (6-3, 230) and is entering his third year as a starter with the Cleveland Browns.
“My freshman year, I watched a lot of Kirksey because he was the previous guy,” Niemann says. “And I still do look at that once in a while. If we’re playing, let’s say Purdue, I’ll watch his senior-year Purdue tape … to see how he played stuff. He was just so good.”
If Iowa's outside linebacker is unproven or ineffective, there's a correlation to losses.
The Hawkeyes lacked a post-Greenway solution in 2006, and that team underachieved. Same deal post-Edds in 2010. Ditto post-Kirksey in 2014, when then-freshman Bo Bower was thrown into the job. Bower was benched in the TaxSlayer Bowl in favor of Niemann, who has since excelled in the position he was recruited for.
They Sycamore, Ill., product — who was born in Des Moines, where his dad, Jay, was Drake’s defensive coordinator at the time — started all 14 games as a sophomore.
He picked up 45 tackles, which is nothing compared with Jewell’s 126 and Cole Fisher’s 116. But again, stats don’t matter at Leo. Team performance does. Iowa is 12-2 when Niemann starts, and it’s worth noting in one of those losses — the Rose Bowl — he re-injured his ankle on Stanford’s second offensive series and didn’t return.
That's a lingering question for Niemann going into 2016: Can he stay healthy? He took a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit in the regular-season finale at Nebraska that triggered concussion protocol; then the ankle; then surgery that forced him to miss spring practice.
“I just played all (2015) season with it,” he says, “and after the season I just had to take care of it.”
And to add to the list, he tweaked a hamstring the same day Jay Scheel did in fall camp, forcing him to miss the Kids Day open practice. Frustrating.
It’s not been the healthiest 9½ months.
“I just want to get rid of the injury bug and go,” he says. “It’s been rough missing some football.”
History shows, Iowa needs him back.