Steady Bo Bower regains starting role as Iowa linebacker

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The person least impressed by Iowa linebacker Bo Bower’s climb back to the top of the depth chart is Bower himself.

“Wherever the coach needs me to go, I’ll go. I’m not going to sulk around,” Bower said repeatedly Tuesday as reporters took turns questioning him about finding himself the starter at weakside linebacker. “I think all the guys think the same way. We’re just ready to win.”

Bower, a junior from West Branch, was a feel-good story during a downer of a 2014 regular season, a onetime walk-on who earned the starting job at strongside linebacker as a redshirt freshman. Bower responded with 38 tackles and two interceptions but was among the players benched in a dispiriting 45-28 loss in the Taxslayer Bowl that left Iowa with a 7-6 record.

First, Ben Niemann took Bower’s job at strongside linebacker. Then, Cole Fisher overtook him during fall camp for the starting weakside spot. Bower was still the fourth linebacker and contributed 15 tackles and an interception in 2015, but it was an open question of how he would respond to the demotion.

The answer came this offseason. Bower was listed as the starter at strongside linebacker this spring while Niemann sat out with an injury. Aaron Mends appeared to be in line for the weakside position, but Bower battled him throughout August and emerged the victor. Not that he is gloating.

“It’s nice but then again all of us are in it to win. It doesn’t matter where we’re at, where we’re playing,” said Bower, who stands 6-foot-1, 235 pounds.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said it was Bower’s ability to remain upbeat and take the long view that served him well.

“He's always an eager, hard-working guy, very good vibe to him, and he got beat out a year ago, but never deterred him at all,” Ferentz said. “His attitude never changed. He was very, very positive.”

Bower will be making his 14th career start Saturday when No. 15 Iowa opens its season by hosting Miami of Ohio at 2:30 p.m. (ESPNU). But that doesn’t mean the position is his to keep, and he knows that now. Mends is a sophomore who will certainly see time in Iowa’s pass-rushing packages. And true freshman Amani Jones has been pushing for playing time as well and is listed as the co-backup at weakside linebacker. All three figure to play Saturday.

For Bower, a big advantage is his versatility. He has extensive experience at both outside linebacker spots and has even been taking practice reps at middle linebacker. Again, he downplayed this time after time Tuesday, explaining that all linebackers learn all three positions. But defensive coordinator Phil Parker and Ferentz both pointed out Bower’s adaptability as one of his biggest advantages.

“Honestly, a lot of the linebacker positions kind of feed off each other. There’s not much of a difference,” Bower said. “I’m in the box more (in the weakside spot), that’s about it.

“I think it’s a family. We all want to win.”

Ferentz said he also was pleased by how Mends has accepted being a backup to Bower. The Kansas City, Mo., native will have to wait for his first Hawkeye start.

“That's what makes a team good, just letting guys compete and battle out there,” Ferentz said of the competition at linebacker. “I can't say enough about Aaron, too. I mean, he's really got a great attitude. He's a really good young guy. He's improved a bunch. It's not a knock on him at all. It's just Bo is doing a little better right now.”

Bower said there was never a question about how he would respond to his sophomore setback.

“You’ve just got to kind of swallow everything you have and you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do,” he said.

“Nothing’s ever set in stone. Anything can happen at any time. Someone’s got to fill in for any spot, so we’re ready to go at any spot we can.”

Bo Bower (41) encourages a teammate during the Rose Bowl game on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.