Establishing trust pivotal for Hawkeyes' fledgling linebacker unit
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The need to establish relationships and trust is essential with any workplace overhaul. How quickly those coming in mesh with those still there is the pivotal ingredient in a successful transition.
Such is the case for Iowa’s fledgling linebacker unit, currently sandwiched between a veteran defensive line and an experienced secondary.
Gone is the reliability of Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann, all chasing the NFL dream. For multiple seasons, that trio provided stability and reassurance in the middle of Kirk Ferentz’s defense. An eager but unproven wave of linebacker talent now shoulders those responsibilities.
No one is expecting this unit to mirror their predecessors overnight. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of having this group comfortable and prepared to handle a hefty workload. How swiftly that trust permeates could dictate a lot about the Hawkeyes’ defensive success.
“With these linebackers, there’s so much that’s required of them from a communication standpoint,” linebackers coach Seth Wallace said at Friday’s media day. “We’re adjusting guys’ alignment from a foot to the right, a foot to the left — and it’s all based on how they see things. That trust when it comes to leadership is so important.”
Throughout media day and Saturday’s Kids Day open practice, Iowa’s linebacker narrative remained the same as it was this spring. The Hawkeyes feel six to nine guys are in the mix for some type of role. Little is solidified.
In turn, competition chatter carries more validity than your average coach speak. Every practice, every rep, every meeting provides opportunity for leaders to emerge and trust to take shape.
There’s no blueprint in generating those qualities. Coaches ideally want it to develop organically, observing closely as players find themselves and gain the respect of the veterans around them.
“I put a lot of pressure in trusting myself,” junior linebacker Amani Jones said. “If I don’t trust myself, I’m not going to say it. So the more I can learn, the more I can say. So if I don’t know it, I’m not going to say it. And that just causes me to put in more time.
“In the role that I’m in, it calls for me to do what other people don’t do. So putting in more time and actually learning what to say and how things go is really important to me right now.”
Consider Jones the leader in the clubhouse. The 6-foot, 238-pound Chicago native seems primed to start at middle linebacker, and it showed during Saturday’s 11-on-11 sessions. Jones ran with the No. 1 unit all afternoon, remaining on the field even as other linebackers rotated in and out around him.
His personality fits the job description. Known for his colorful, energetic demeanor, Jones possesses the take-charge qualities needed to thrive in the middle of a defense.
"I feel like if everyone hears my voice, everything will be alright,” he said. “If I’m not down, if I’m not crying, the whole defense will be alright.”
Still, the experience is lacking. Jones cemented himself as a special teams battering ram during his first two seasons, but owns just 10 career tackles as a Hawkeye. Wallace praised Jones’ ability between the tackles, but added that his perimeter work needs improvement.
“He’s got some instincts to him,” Wallace said. “At this point in time, he’s still trying to feel his way around. But his presence, his hardness, I think that is probably what you’ll see when the game exists between the tackles.”
Redshirt sophomore Nick Niemann — Ben’s younger brother — seems to be the man to beat at outside linebacker. Ferentz said Friday that he and Jones are “ahead of the pack.”
Niemann was also a special teams mainstay in 2017. Like Jones, the Sept. 1 opener will be his first career start should things hold. Even with the inside track, Niemann knows things can change quickly.
“The competition is so intense,” Niemann said. “You’ve got to go as hard as you can every day. You can’t hold back at all. As a group, I think we’re all pushing forward pretty well together.
“Your teammates have to be able to trust you all the time, otherwise you don’t really have any credibility. Along with that, you’ve got to take blame for stuff too. That helps develop leadership and trust as well.”
Cementing those traits at the final linebacker spot is the biggest unknown based on Saturday’s scrimmage.
Junior Kristian Welch started at the weakside position, but redshirt freshman Djimon Colbert and sophomore Barrington Wade also checked in on the opening drive and throw senior Jack Hockaday into the mix as well.
Iowa doesn’t have to make any decisions right this second, and it’s quite possible the battles will play out all the way into game week. With so little game experience to lean on, Ferentz and his staff will give every guy every chance to gain the respect of their veteran defensive teammates.
“Trust takes years to gain and seconds to lose,” Welch said. “So we’ve definitely got to prepare the way we’re supposed to.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.