IOWA CITY, Ia. — Amani Jones loves “bringing the boom” to the football field.
The junior linebacker considers himself the hardest hitter on the Iowa team, so his business is “booming.” Especially on kickoff returns.
“That’s the start of the game. I’m the first one on the field. I should be the first one making tackles,” Jones said this week. “I just see ball, hit ball. It comes naturally to me.”
Jones, who stands 6-feet, 238 pounds, recently set the Hawkeye record for squats by lifting 625 pounds. When he hits someone, they feel it.
But he’s putting the “boom” aside during spring practices, Jones said. His focus has been on learning two inside linebacker positions, trying to master the mental side of things in order to crack the starting lineup for the first time.
“Sometimes I get them mixed up. It’s all a learning process,” Jones said of alternating time between middle and weak-side linebacker during the first 10 of Iowa’s 15 scheduled spring sessions.
“I feel like I still don’t know a lot, but I definitely have progressed from two years ago.”
Jones said he’s learning how to move when playing the middle position left vacant by graduated all-American Josey Jewell. It requires someone who can quickly identify and call out what defensive front the Hawkeyes should be in, being able to look at opposing guards and tackles and ascertain where the play is going.
4 upperclassmen fight for 2 spots
That’s the challenge four Iowa upperclassmen are facing this spring in their hopes to replace not only Jewell but Bo Bower, who started the past two seasons at the “Will” spot. In addition to Jones, seniors Jack Hockaday and Aaron Mends plus junior Kristian Welch are in the mix to earn playing time at two vital positions after being used primarily on special teams until now.
“We haven’t really made a strong determination on anything yet,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters Wednesday. “We might take it through the last practice. Aaron’s doing a good job. We’d expect that. And Jack Hockaday. The two older guys both have been good. Amani Jones, I think’s done a nice job, continues to impress us. Welch has done a good job. And I think (sophomore) Nick Niemann, those are probably the top five guys at this point, and really pretty close in terms of the strengths, weaknesses.”
Niemann is the listed starter at outside linebacker, where he would replace his brother, Ben. He is being pushed by sophomore Barrington Wade for that spot.
So there’s a lot at stake for the Hawkeyes, who can’t afford a significant dropoff in production at the linebacker spots just because there will be an inevitable decline in experience.
In absence of Jewell, 'we have to come together'
Jones said all of the wannabe starters are aware that they’re under a microscope. But that has brought a sense of “we’re in this together.”
“We’re not seeing somebody to step up like another Josey Jewell. We’re not looking for that right now because we know we can’t get that back,” Jones said. “We have to come together collectively as a group and be prepared for anything.”
Jones doesn’t find out until he reaches the practice field each day where he’ll be lined up. He said it’s been a pretty even split for him as linebackers coach Seth Wallace tries to get a feel for who best fits where.
Hockaday, by contrast, is seen exclusively as a middle linebacker, where he was Jewell’s primary backup when healthy the last two seasons. The senior is listed as the backup to Welch during spring practices.
“The best three guys will play and I think everybody will stand behind that and give their full support,” Hockaday said of the competition.
Hockaday healthy after a trying junior season
Hockaday enters his final Hawkeye spring fully healthy after a junior season marked by medical setbacks. He played in only six games last season, making three tackles.
Hockaday dislocated an elbow during training camp last year. He recovered by the middle of the season only to find out he needed to have his appendix removed at the end of the year.
“I kind of had a rough deal last year, but I’m hoping to move past that,” Hockaday said.
“Your goal is always to play. In high school (Maroa-Forsyth in Illinois), I was always the guy. So it’s a little tough, but you’ve always got to embrace your role. My role was special teams and to be the backup for Josey.”
If that role is to increase this year, Hockaday, at 6-1, 235 pounds, will need to prove that he can get the defense lined up properly. And then make some plays.
“I think that I’ve got a nose for the ball. I can find my way to make a tackle,” Hockaday said.
Can he do more than that?
As Jones said: “You bring the boom or you don’t bring the boom.”
You definitely can’t bring it if you’re stuck on the sideline.
It’s boom or bust for Iowa’s linebacking hopefuls this spring.