Kristian Welch gets his chance as Iowa's newest starting middle linebacker
IOWA CITY, Ia.— Last spring, the plan was for Kristian Welch to be the next middle linebacker for the Iowa football team.
The junior has the size (6-foot-3, 238 pounds) and speed for it. He loves contact.
Then Amani Jones had a terrific month of practices, and backed it up with a strong August. He was the Hawkeyes’ man in the middle up until the first quarter of the first game, when he showed some difficulties focusing and was replaced by Jack Hockaday.
Hockaday lasted four games before injuring his knee in Saturday’s win at Minnesota. He was replaced by Jones, who flashed the skills that earned him the job in the first place while making a team-high nine tackles. Alas, in the final minute of the game, Jones drew a targeting penalty that earned him a suspension for the first half of Saturday’s game at Indiana (11 a.m., ESPN2).
Consequently, Welch will finally get his start at middle linebacker. He has already started three games at the weakside spot, is a backup at outside linebacker and has been Iowa’s top option in nickel packages, where his pass-coverage skills are coveted.
“I’m just going to go out and do my best,” Welch said Tuesday, anticipating his first start at a position that is the captain of the front seven players in Iowa’s defense.
“My high school coach (Scott Erickson in Iola, Wisconsin) said you never should get nervous. You always should be anxious to display what you prepared and worked so hard for.”
Welch will be the new face in an Iowa lineup that has had little continuity this season. Outside linebacker Nick Niemann also has a leg injury and will miss another game, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. Hockaday and Niemann could return for Iowa’s homecoming game against Maryland Oct. 20.
At Minnesota, the coaching staff opted to replace Niemann primarily with safety Amani Hooker, who responded with a strong game. That arrangement remains the likely plan against the Hoosiers (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten Conference). Indiana, like Minnesota, prefers to rely on wide receivers, not tight ends, to move the football through the air.
“It’s something we think we can make an advantage,” Iowa safety Jake Gervase said. “We’ll probably do something similar this week.”
Ferentz even hinted that the three-safety look could be an option the rest of the season.
“I don't know that we want Amani in there playing linebacker against a team that's playing with bigger personnel,” he said.
“I think most of the teams we play right now from here on out offer you some opportunity to play that way if you choose to.”
Iowa (4-1, 1-1) also is dealing with injuries to both starting cornerbacks. True freshmen Julius Brents and Riley Moss made their first starts there against Minnesota, and Ferentz suggested that could be the case again Saturday. But he also said the normal starters, Matt Hankins (wrist injury) and Michael Ojemudia (hamstring), will be available. All four have been splitting practice repetitions this week.
Whoever plays cornerback will have to contend with a more prolific quarterback this week in redshirt sophomore Peyton Ramsey. He has thrown for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns, picking up another 180 yards and two scores on the ground. Ramsey passed for 322 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions, in a loss at Ohio State on Saturday.
He has Iowa’s full attention.
“I think the big wild card here is the quarterback. He can pull it down and run. Some of it's designed. Other things, if it opens up, he'll just take off,” Ferentz said of Ramsey.
“He plays with a lot of poise for being a young player.”
It will be up to Welch to match that poise, at least for 30 minutes. Ferentz said he’ll evaluate things at halftime Saturday and decide whether to replace Welch with Jones.
“I thought Amani played much better,” Ferentz said of the Minnesota game. “That first game he was all over the place, trying to do 18 things on one play. He played a lot more by the numbers last Saturday, which was really encouraging.”
Welch leads Iowa with 14 unassisted tackles. He has played well, just not well enough to earn a permanent starting role. This could be his chance.
“I just like playing inside (linebacker). It’s a little more physical,” Welch said. “Kind of hit guys, get off and then find the ball.”
But there’s a lot more to playing middle linebacker than just planting ball-carriers. The ‘Mike’ position also requires someone who can get the defensive line positioned properly, and keep the linebackers on either side of him aware of what play is likely coming.
After three years of having all-American Josey Jewell handling all those duties superbly, Iowa is now on its third starting middle linebacker in six games.
“He was obviously the model of consistency. Our security, our baby blanket back there,” senior defensive end Parker Hesse said of Jewell.
“We ask a lot of our linebackers in our defense — front adjustments, coverage adjustments, too. (It’s important to have) a feel for each guy and how they communicate and how they see things, just so you know you’re on the same page once the ball’s snapped.”
Welch said he’s been partnering with weakside linebacker Djimon Colbert, who will be making his third career start, in barking out calls to the defense. They’re learning together, on the fly.
That’s the way it’s been for Iowa’s linebackers all season. Five of them have gotten starts. None had much game experience entering the fall.
“The cavalry’s not coming. The coaches always say that,” Welch said.
Or maybe he is the cavalry.