Who will make up Iowa's next wave of stud linebackers? Kristian Welch, Amani Jones are good bets
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Want to play linebacker for the Hawkeyes this season and beyond?
Get in line.
Seth Wallace, Iowa’s linebackers coach and freshly-minted assistant defensive coordinator, has the luxury and dilemma of distributing snaps for a unit with three returning senior starters. Bo Bower, Ben Niemann and star Josey Jewell have the starting spots locked down entering this season, and Wallace is searching for their relievers and eventual replacements.
“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got quality depth,” Wallace said at Saturday’s Media Day.
“We’re going to be reliant on others — and I think they recognize that, in terms of helping the growth of the position.”
Iowa’s depth chart behind Jewell in the middle, Niemann outside and Bower on the weak side is driving competition this offseason. Little-known players are rushing to learn the responsibilities of defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s system and make an impact in practice.
The Hawkeyes will rely on those reserves before they get a shot at a starting job in 2018.
“It’s nice to have experience everywhere. It’s nicer to have experience with good players,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s something we can say.
“But we’re not going to win with just those three guys.”
Iowa’s next generation of linebackers may lean on a deep group of second-year players.
Wisconsin native Kristian Welch has jumped junior Jack Hockaday to become Jewell’s backup. As the No. 2 option at “Mike” linebacker, Welch took a heap of spring and summer snaps with Jewell — the Butkus Award finalist — watching from the sideline.
“Being able to watch (Jewell) go through practice, drills — or even team meetings — it’s definitely good for me,” Welch said. “There’s a standard you have to live up to.”
Welch has spent time at all three linebacker spots in his short Hawkeye career — experience he thinks has given him rare insight into defensive assignments. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound true sophomore was credited with two solo tackles and one assisted stop last season. He saw the field in 12 games.
“I’ve gotten a taste of everything,” Welch said. “I tried to take notes as much as I could. Josey, Bo and Ben helped out with any questions I had.”
Sturdy sophomore Amani Jones has emerged as Bower’s substitute at the “Will” spot. Thanks to extra study sessions with film, playbooks and teammates, the 235-pound Chicago native overtook redshirt junior Aaron Mends for the second-string reps.
“In the meetings rooms, no one is safe,” Jones said. “The three starters — even if they don’t know something — they’ll probably get ripped. The young guys, they’ll get ripped. Everyone is treated equally.
“(Wallace) knows who should know what.”
Mends remains the only linebacker to top Jones’s impressive weight room feats. Jones says he recently squatted 605 pounds, but Mends bettered his own record of 610 pounds soon after.
“I want to be on the (record) board,” Jones said with a laugh. “I want to set a mark that nobody can touch. I want people to see it and be, like, ‘Who’s this guy?,’ and they get the story behind it.”
The No. 2 option behind Niemann is another senior: outside linebacker Kevin Ward. That means four experienced players that Iowa is expecting to perform well in 2017 will leave open roster spots by January.
“You can lead when you’re on the field, but you can lead when you’re off the field in the meeting room and classroom, as well,” Niemann said. “We’re just trying to help those guys progress with their overall knowledge of the defense. It’s Xs and Os. We’ve been here awhile and know some little things they might not know yet. When we turn it over to those guys, we want them to be the best players they can be.”
Redshirt freshmen Nick Niemann and Barrington Wade are not yet listed on Iowa’s pre-fall depth chart, but both were cited by starters as potential contributors.
What should fans watch for from them and Iowa’s other future linebackers? Bower, Jewell and Niemann still have their senior seasons left to play. And Wallace isn’t sharing just yet.
“We’ve got to make sure they’re where Josey, Bo and Ben were last year — that’s what you try to push for,” the seventh-year assistant said. “The young guys pay attention; they listen — this is all non-physical — they’re detailed. They’re good kids. They don’t have a whole lot of external distractions. It seems likes they’ve got their house in order. That’s all we’re asking, really.
“We recruited them. We know they’re good athletes. We know they’re good football players.”
Top Tacklers of 2016
Listed below are Iowa’s returning linebackers who were credited with tackles in 2016. Their class, entering the season, is shown with games played, solo tackles, assisted tackles, and total tackles.
Name Class GP Solo Ast. Total
J. Jewell Sr. 13 58 66 124
B. Bower Sr. 13 44 47 91
B. Niemann Sr. 13 37 32 69
J. Hockaday Jr. 13 7 4 11
K. Ward Sr. 13 8 2 10
A. Mends Jr. 12 2 2 4
K. Welch So. 12 2 1 3
A. Jones So. 13 1 0 1