Jack Hockaday steadies group of Iowa linebackers that will have yet another new starter

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Jack Hockaday isn’t always sure who he’s going to see when he looks to his left and right this football season.

Iowa’s middle linebacker played in 29 games before getting his chance to start, and suddenly he’s the steadying influence in a unit that seems to be in constant flux.

“Everybody has to be ready for any possible scenario,” Hockaday told reporters Tuesday.

Wisconsin running back Taiwan Deal runs up the field in front of linebacker Jack Hockaday on September 22, 2018 at Kinnick Stadium.

This week’s scenario includes sophomore Barrington Wade getting his first start at outside linebacker after Nick Niemann suffered a leg injury late in the Sept. 22 loss to Wisconsin. Niemann had started the first four games and will miss the next two Saturdays at least, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday.

Wade will be the sixth different Hawkeye to start at linebacker this season. All six of those had no previous starting experience.

Iowa (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten Conference) plays its first road game of the season Saturday at Minnesota (3-1, 0-1). Kickoff is 2:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

The Gophers average 347 yards per game, with a near even split between rushing and passing output.

That’s the challenge for an Iowa linebacking corps that has done a good job while learning on the fly this season. Hockaday, a senior, took over from Amani Jones early in the season opener and has maintained a grip on that spot ever since. He leads the Hawkeyes with 28 tackles, including a career-high nine against Wisconsin.

But Iowa gave up 28 points in that one and looked a step behind for the first time all season.

“Jack's done a great job. He's really solidified things,” Ferentz said. “We can play better on defense. That wasn't our best outing last time out and there's some things fundamentally we can do better. And those things showed up on the tape and hopefully we've been addressing those.”

Hockaday agreed with that assessment.

“I’m doing pretty well, but I know I have to do better,” he said. “Because I’m not a complacent person.”

Ferentz said Wade made a noticeable rise during August camp. Until then, “he was doing OK, but nothing to write home about,” the coach said.

Wade, at 6-foot-1, 233 pounds, redshirted in 2016 and did not play a single down last season. He is still looking for his first career tackle.

He’s an unknown commodity.

“He’s got good physicality. He’s good at taking on blocks,” Hockaday said of Wade. “So we’re excited about him.”

On the other side of Hockaday, Djimon Colbert is set to get his second start. He’s been splitting time with Kristian Welch at the weakside spot, with each playing a half against Wisconsin.

Welch is second on the team with 26 tackles. Colbert has 13.

Ferentz said Welch, who is now the primary backup at both outside and weakside linebacker, also will play against Minnesota.

“Nothing's in permanent ink yet,” Ferentz said of those two linebacker spots.

The calm in the middle of those moving parts remains Hockaday, an Illinois native who chose Iowa over the likes of Nebraska, Missouri and Duke. He spent three years watching and learning from all-American Josey Jewell. Hockaday said he never thought about transferring.

“That’s just not how I am, really. I’m not the type of guy to quit,” Hockaday said. “I thought I would have an opportunity here at some point, so I just stuck it out.”

The Hawkeyes are glad he did. There’s no telling what would have happened to the middle of the defense this season without Hockaday. He has become a leader, quietly. Just like Jewell.

Hockaday said it’s not as confusing as it might appear to have a different pair of teammates beside him seemingly every time he turns his head.

“We don’t focus on who’s in there,” said Hockaday ahead of just his fourth career start. “Just that they’re getting the job done.”