IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s no bluster in Amani Jones.
Ask him if he can be “the guy” on the Iowa defense, the way Josey Jewell was the past three years, and he knows not to take the bait.
“I don’t think like that,” the Hawkeye junior middle linebacker said Tuesday. “I never put that credit on myself, because I feel like I can’t be ‘the guy.’ That’s just how it is.”
Jones had the most intriguing spring of any Iowa football player. He started out second on the depth chart at weakside linebacker, behind senior Aaron Mends. By the time the team was ready to go on public display in its final practice at Kinnick Stadium, Jones was the starter in the middle, seemingly in control of a defense that put on a strong showing that night.
It was a performance he needed, for his own confidence, Jones conceded. But there was a lot going on behind the scenes as well as the Hawkeyes seek to replace three veteran linebackers, including the all-American Jewell.
Junior Kristian Welch got the initial shot at the starting middle linebacker job. But Iowa’s coaches soon felt that Jones, a cement block at 238 pounds, was more suited to that role.
“They can’t run from you,” was how it was explained to Jones, who has been a standout on kick coverage.
When Mends was sidelined by a knee injury, Welch resurfaced as the starter on the weakside. Sophomore Nick Niemann looks to be the answer at the outside spot, where he’ll replace older brother Ben.
Jones admitted there was some initial “friction” with Welch when both tried to master new jobs. Welch was so accustomed to playing middle linebacker that he still wanted to have that control.
“That’s not his job anymore. And sometimes I have to remind him, ‘We have to compromise on what’s going on in this box right now.’ So he gets it. He knows what I’m trying to do,” Jones said. “Now it’s kind of cleared out.”
Jones said Mends’ on-field presence is missed.
“We both have that speed. We both have the leg power. You’ve got two really thick guys in the legs that can really move around in the box,” Jones said. “But Aaron and his situation, things didn’t go that way.”
It is uncertain whether Mends will be able to return to the field sometime this fall. He was named to the Hawkeyes’ 12-player leadership group and is around to provide guidance.
But Jones was most excited to talk about the chemistry that is starting to build among Welch, Niemann and him. It’s what prompted him to go on a lengthy philosophical explanation of what it means to be “the guy,” or whether that’s even needed on this year’s squad.
“We haven’t played that many snaps. So it all has to be one unit. If I feel like I can’t make the tackle, I know I have to put my trust in Kristian Welch or Nick Niemann. They can come and make the tackle for me. I need to shed a block, they can be right there in the hole,” Jones said.
“We really take pride in the unit. … There’s no more looking for answers in one guy anymore.”
That’s not to say that Jones isn’t growing more comfortable in a role that makes him the de facto captain of the defense. He sometimes hears Jewell’s voice in his head while watching film, Jones said. He can sense that his coaches are putting more trust in him as he shows more mastery of the playbook.
“I don’t have that many weaknesses anymore, because now I don’t have to put it all on myself,” Jones explained. “So my weakness probably would be Kristian’s strength. Or my strong part might be Nick Niemann’s weakness.”
The result, Jones said, is that when a certain call comes in from the sideline, the trio can look into each other’s eyes and immediately know that they understand their responsibilities. That’s a weight off of Jones’ broad shoulders.
It played out that way in the spring open practice, Jones said. After an initial bumpy series in which he admitted to suffering from nerves, he settled down and had a superb performance.
“I was saying too much. It was nerve-wracking for me. I want to be right,” Jones said of that first offensive drive.
Jones said he then realized he doesn’t always have to be shouting instructions to his teammates. They know what they’re doing.
“I think we have more of a team instead of just one person. I’m not saying we weren’t a team when Josey was here, but it was more of a (feeling of), ‘Josey didn’t make that play … Aaww, s---, it’s a big gain.’
“Everybody’s chipping in here and there. No one’s on a spot anymore.”
Instead, Jones sees it as he’s in a spot where he belongs. Just part of a trio that is aiming to get better by the day.