Djimon Colbert quickly blossoms as Iowa's newest safety-turned-linebacker

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central
Iowa's Djimon Colbert celebrates after his team's 48-31 win against Minnesota after an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, in Minneapolis.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Djimon Colbert was originally recruited to play cornerback at Iowa.

After his sophomore season at Bishop Miege High School in Kansas, when he had added 10 pounds, he was moved to safety.

The Hawkeyes liked him there just fine and offered him a scholarship as a guy they felt could man the back end of their defense.

So it is strange indeed for Colbert that he’s about to make his fourth start at weakside linebacker when No. 22 Iowa (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten Conference) faces Maryland (4-2, 2-1) at 11 a.m. Saturday in Kinnick Stadium (ESPN2).

“It’s nothing I’m nervous about. I’ve loved it so far, being on the field at Kinnick,” said Colbert, a redshirt freshman who was moved to linebacker this spring because he kept filling out his 6-foot-1 frame.

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Colbert arrived in Iowa City weighing 212 pounds and carefully monitoring what he ate. He’s at 232 now, free to consume both calories and opposing ball-carriers. His 27 tackles are fifth on the team.

“I’ve just been getting bigger and bigger each year, so moving me closer to the ball … is a positive now that I think about it,” Colbert said.

“I was nervous about it at first, because it was just new. Now I’m in the box and now I’m having to read offensive linemen. … I hadn’t had to read offensive linemen before and just the different kinds of run schemes I can get. Playing safety, I could see a run and then just find the ball and go get it. But now I have to know what a counter play is.”

Colbert and the Iowa defense are about to spend their most mentally taxing Saturday this season. Maryland averages 245 rushing yards per game because it has a trio of talented backs and a way of sending players in motion that can confound defenses. Ty Johnson averages 8.1 yards per carry. Anthony McFarland, technically the backup, tops that at 8.9. The Terrapins have seven touchdown runs this season of 20 yards or longer.

“They can get into triple-option. They can get into jet-sweeps. It’s a big mental challenge for us,” Colbert said.

“They can get into 10 different personnel groups with tight ends and running backs."

Iowa’s defense has been up to the task throughout the season. The Hawkeyes rank second in the Big Ten in both scoring defense (16.5 points per game) and rushing defense (2.7 yards per attempt). The team expects to get outside linebacker Nick Niemann back from a knee injury.

Colbert is not nervous.

“They have some guys who can bust it open. But I think just the fact that we know where we’re supposed to be on those different plays just watching the film and seeing how other teams might have missed an assignment” will help, Colbert said.

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Iowa coaches helped sell Colbert on the switch to linebacker by mentioning a pair of Hawkeyes who reached the NFL. Anthony Hitchens arrived as a running back, was switched to defensive back and eventually linebacker. He has 60 tackles for the Kansas City Chiefs this season. Christian Kirksey was another safety-turned linebacker at Iowa who has 453 tackles in five seasons with the Cleveland Browns.

“It’s just inspiring hearing stories like that and knowing that other guys have done it. I kind of see myself in those shoes,” said Colbert, who could be a four-year starter at Iowa linebacker if all goes to plan.

“There’s really no difference between me and those guys.”

Colbert spent last season on the scout team. It’s remarkable how fast he’s risen at his new position considering he didn’t really immerse himself into Iowa’s defensive schemes until the spring. His teammates have noticed this, too.

“He plays hard and he’s been able to acclimate to that linebacker position pretty quickly,” senior defensive tackle Sam Brincks said of Colbert. “It’s fun to watch a young guy like him grow because he’s building confidence and you can see it.”

Colbert saw his first game action in Week 1, was the starter at weakside linebacker in Week 2 and regained that spot from junior Kristian Welch in the second half of a Week 4 loss to Wisconsin. His best game came against Minnesota two weeks ago, when he had eight tackles. The job seems to be his to lose now.

Colbert was asked if the next stop for him might be defensive end. He laughed. He might put on a couple of more pounds, he said.

But …

“I think I’m stopping here,” Colbert said of linebacker. “I love it here.”

Maryland (4-2, 2-1) at No. 22 Iowa (5-1, 2-1)

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Kinnick Stadium

TV: ESPN2 (Mark Jones, Dusty Dvoracek, Molly McGrath)

Line: Hawkeyes by 10 points

Weather: Sunny with gusty winds at 25-35 mph from the northwest; high of 48 degrees