Seth Wallace is approaching his third season as Iowa’s linebackers coach with a colorful caveat: “They’re so green.”
He’s speaking of a unit that must replace three starters while also dealing with a significant injury to one of just two seniors. And Wallace made it clear during a Wednesday interview on KxNO’s “Hawk Central” radio show that he would consider getting even younger at linebacker this fall, perhaps plugging some first-year players into the mix.
“I wouldn’t count out these freshmen,” Wallace said. “The depth is not as great as it maybe has been in years past and if you’re going to strengthen that at Iowa, you’re going to have to do it with freshmen. And we’re open to that.”
Wallace said junior Amani Jones is on pace to be the starter at middle linebacker. He said redshirt sophomore Nick Niemann has more physical gifts than older brother Ben, a three-year starter at outside linebacker, but not nearly the game experience. And he said junior Kristian Welch has the inside track to start at the weakside spot, although that is where the most competition figures to be this summer after Aaron Mends suffered a knee injury in April.
Jack Hockaday, the lone remaining healthy senior, has been the primary backup at the two inside linebacker spots, Wallace said. That flexibility figures to be important because the rest of the position group needs to stick to learning the ins and outs of one job at this juncture of their careers.
“Because these guys are so young and lack that defensive experience, it’s very important that you don’t try to move them around too much and just let them get into a groove at their position and hope that they improve there before you start moving them around,” Wallace said. “Because then you start messing with the mental side of it, and that’s when you start slowing a player down.”
You can listen to the full 28-minute interview with Wallace here. He spoke candidly about a number of his linebackers, including:
“Amani is somebody who displays an attitude, a mentality, a motor,” Wallace said of the muscular 6-foot, 238-pounder from Chicago.
That’s why Jones jumped to the top of the depth chart at middle linebacker this spring, where he’s in line to replace all-American Josey Jewell.
“It looks like he’s got a chance to possibly be that guy,” Wallace said.
But he needs to fast-track his football knowledge, and that’s not easy for a guy who’s primarily played special teams his first two seasons.
“Time spent on his own in the meeting room watching tape, being able to see as many pictures as he can between now and when we line up in early August is going to be the biggest thing,” Wallace said.
The Kansas native arrived last summer as a safety. But he kept putting on weight, up to 234 pounds on his 6-1 frame. He’s a linebacker now.
“Djimon is an example of the amount of money that we spend to feed our players,” Wallace said. “He came in here as a safety and he couldn’t hold his weight down. And that’s a good thing because any time you can find a converted safety that can move to linebacker, obviously you’ve got some athleticism you can work with.”
The son of longtime Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle got a jumpstart on his freshman season by spending the spring on campus after graduating early from Iowa City West. The family ties have helped as Dillon Doyle is a natural in the weight room, Wallace said. The extra few months as a Hawkeye have set him apart from his peers as well. Doyle (6-3, 227) has a chance to play at either inside spot, Wallace said.
“His background gave him a chance to know what our culture was like, why we did things,” Wallace said. “His process has been much more accelerated than maybe some of those other guys. I’m not saying he’s not a freshman, but he’s kind of got an asterisk next to his name in terms of what he’s been able to show us.”
Doyle isn’t the only local product trying to get on the field at linebacker. Wieland (6-1, 223), a redshirt freshman from Iowa City High, has been slowed slightly by an unspecified injury suffered in the final week of spring practices, Wallace said.
Wallace said the injury is not significant and the hope is to get Wieland back at full speed next month. He, too, projects as an interior linebacker.
Mends finally appeared on the verge of earning a starting spot at weakside linebacker before injury struck. The initial prognosis wasn’t positive, but Wallace said a return in 2018 hasn’t been ruled out.
“Aaron’s a strong kid. I think a lot of stuff he’s done in the weight room has been well-documented. I’d guess that he’s ahead of schedule,” Wallace said. “With any injury of that magnitude, the biggest thing is time and making sure that everything’s intact and ready to go before there’s any type of return to play.
“That’s up for our medical staff to decide. What has to happen is his attitude has to continue to stay strong, and it has been. And he’s got to keep pushing because every body reacts differently. I think it’s still probably too early to predict when that may take place.”