Tracing the unlikely path of Iowa's unsung but football-savvy senior linebacker, Ben Niemann

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ben Niemann was set on playing wide receiver in college. He was going to score touchdowns at Northern Illinois, where his father Jay was the defensive coordinator.

He was so sure of his future that he shut down the recruiting process at the beginning of his junior year at Sycamore High School in Illinois.

That’s why it will be so strange to see Niemann jog onto the Kinnick Stadium turf Saturday for the final time as one of the best and perhaps most underappreciated linebackers in Iowa Haweye history. The Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten Conference) are celebrating Senior Day when they host Purdue (4-6, 2-5). Kickoff is at 2:40 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann tackles North Texas tight end Kelvin Smith in September. The senior has 64 tackles to rank third on the Hawkeyes, but his value far exceeds mere statistics.

Iowa changed the course of Niemann’s life. Niemann altered the fortunes of Iowa’s football program.

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“Ben’s probably one of the most underrated linebackers in the Big Ten, if not the country,” said Travis Perry, a former Iowa linebacker who was Niemann’s mentor as a freshman. “He’ll go down as one of the top-tier linebackers at Iowa. He’ll be right in that category.”

Niemann will be making his 38th start at Iowa’s strongside linebacker position Saturday. He has 227 tackles to his credit but his value goes well beyond mere statistics. The “Leo” position at Iowa requires an athlete fleet enough to cover wide receivers in the slot and daring enough to take on offensive tackles to stuff running plays.

Niemann never knew he had that in him, but Hawkeye coaches saw something. And they persuaded him to abandon his high school plans and head west. Niemann is happy they did.

Iowa's Ben Niemann chases down Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016.

“Iowa started communicating with me and then in my head I realized my dad might not be at Northern Illinois my whole time there, and if he leaves, which he ended up doing, I would rather be at Iowa,” Niemann said.

Jay Niemann is in his second season as defensive coordinator at Rutgers. He helped his son wrap his head around making the switch to defense. Ben had played some safety in high school, but never thought of himself as a linebacker.

The Hawkeyes had Jay Scheel as the wide receiver in that 2014 recruiting class, however, and didn’t see a spot for the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Niemann at that position.

“The Leo position, you want a guy that’s athletic and I guess they saw me with that prototype, and if they put weight on me I could turn into that,” Niemann said.

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He arrived in Iowa City that summer determined to find out what it takes to be a great linebacker. Perry was assigned as his roommate and helped him decipher the thick playbook.

“That’s the biggest obstacle your freshman year. It’s not so much the physicality of the game. That comes along. But it’s just the mental side of things and being able to recognize and identify formations,” Perry said. “If you look at the playbook as a whole, it can kind of be intimidating at first. But once you start breaking it down into formations and personnel groupings, that’s when you start to see the jump.

“He’s a student of the game, which is something that all great players have. He picked up on everything very quickly.”

Niemann was so impressive that the Hawkeyes didn’t even redshirt him, throwing him right into the fray on special teams and in nickel packages. Niemann repaid that trust by blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown against Northwestern. It’s the only touchdown of his college career, but it signaled his arrival. By the second half of his rookie campaign, Niemann said he started to believe he could actually be a starting linebacker in the Big Ten.

Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann tackles Wisconsin running back Dare Ogunbowale during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016.

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“My head was just spinning, honestly,” Niemann said of the beginning of the 2014 season. “I just knew that if I worked hard and put my mind to things I would have a chance to make an impact here.”

Niemann impressed his older teammates with his quiet determination and pleasant demeanor. He is your favorite Hawkeye’s favorite Hawkeye.

“He was a cool dude and he was really nice and he kind of fit in with what Bo (Bower) and I were doing,” said Josey Jewell, Iowa’s star middle linebacker who is one year older than Niemann.

“There was no tension between us,” agreed Bower, also a fifth-year senior who starts at weakside linebacker. “He listened. He saw what the older guys were doing and he kind of fed off that.”

Perry is so fond of Niemann that he made him one of the first people to get an invitation to his upcoming wedding.

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Josh Jackson, Iowa’s outstanding cornerback, counts Niemann as one of his closest friends. They came in together, although Jackson did redshirt that first season.

“He’s always been a guy who works hard on and off the field, academics and strength and conditioning,” Jackson said of Niemann. “That made me want to work harder and just be accountable to him.”

Niemann has put on 27 pounds since becoming an Iowa linebacker. He ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash when he was a high schooler at an Iowa State camp. He’s certainly faster than that now, and it shows.

Niemann is tied for second on the team with five passes broken up, to go along with 64 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles. Jackson has joked that Niemann is an honorary cornerback, so skilled is he in coverage.

When Jewell missed this year’s Northwestern game with a shoulder injury, Niemann stepped inside to fill that vital role and amassed 11 tackles.

He’ll have a chance to play in the NFL.

But first Hawkeye fans should give him one final round of applause Saturday, for all he’s done that has gone noticed and unnoticed.

“From the second I saw him out on the field I knew he was going to be a great player,” said Perry, who is now a recruiting and player personnel assistant with the Hawkeyes.

“He can probably play any position on the defense and move there and you’d think he’d been playing it all year. That’s how smart he is.”

PURDUE (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten Conference) at IOWA (6-4, 3-4)

WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TIME/TV: 2:40 p.m., BTN (announcers: Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen, Lisa Byington)

LINE: Hawkeyes by 7 1/2

WEATHER: 43 degrees, with early rain giving way to a mixture of sun and clouds. Winds from the north-northwest at 20-30 mph, with stronger gusts possible.

OF NOTE: Iowa will honor 18 seniors and their families before the game.