Iowa linebackers face challenging new path to playing time

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Seth Wallace succinctly laid out the challenge Tuesday for the large group of Iowa linebackers he coaches.

There are 17 athletes seeking playing time. But there are now only two starting spots after the Hawkeyes committed last season to playing a 4-2-5 defensive scheme. 

Iowa is using a fifth defensive back rather than a third linebacker to better combat offenses relying much more on vertical passing attacks.

“We do have a healthy number of guys in there,” Wallace said of the linebackers room. “But now we’re in this different personnel that fits about 80 percent of what we see on average. The other 20 percent is what we were recruiting for, when there’s three linebackers on the field.

“You’ll probably find us less likely to take 3-4 linebackers in a recruiting class, and maybe that extra guy going to the secondary.”

Linebackers aren’t becoming obsolete at Iowa., but their path to playing time has gotten much harder. That strain was evident when reporters spoke to the Hawkeyes’ top three linebackers earlier Tuesday.

“You don’t want to be a guy that only plays 20 percent of the time,” said junior Nick Niemann, who made five starts last year at an outside linebacker spot that is essentially going away. “Moving inside’s definitely going to be a way to get you on the field more, I think.”

Iowa linebacker Kristian Welch (34) and Iowa defensive back Jake Gervase (30) tackle Maryland quarterback Tyrell Pigrome (3) during an NCAA Big Ten conference football game on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Niemann is working at all three linebacker spots during spring practices. Senior Kristian Welch (three starts at weak-side linebacker, three at middle) is the front-runner at the middle spot for now, but is also being tested at the other two. Sophomore Djimon Colbert (10 starts at weak-side linebacker) is atop the depth chart at a position he inherited a year ago, but made it clear that, long-term, he’d love to be the Hawkeyes’ middle linebacker.

And redshirt freshmen such as Dillon Doyle, Seth Benson and Jayden McDonald are also trying to barge their way onto the field sooner rather than later.

Healthy competition? You bet. There’s plenty of that going on.

But there’s also a feeling of anxiety. The linebackers can certainly sense that they’re caught in a numbers game.

“We still get reps in our base defense with our Leo position (outside linebacker) out there,” Colbert said. “You can say it makes it more competitive. We’re just focused on one thing: getting better right now.”

Senior Amani Jones, the opening-game starter at middle linebacker a year ago, has moved to defensive end, Wallace said. He hinted that others may be on the move as well. And it’s no secret that backup linebackers are often first in line for special-teams duty, so all is not lost for those who don’t earn the two starting spots.

“We’re trying to find the best two, knowing that last year we needed our best four, we needed our best five, with some of the injuries,” Wallace said of his challenge this spring and summer. “It’s not always going to be like it was in ’17, where you run the race with three guys.”

For now, that lineup looks like it'll have Welch in the middle. He had 49 tackles a year ago while dealing with a nagging foot injury.

Welch articulated exactly why players want to man the middle of the Iowa defense. There are typically a lot of tackles to be had.

“You can sort of have that mobility to make a lot of plays,” Welch said. “You can make a lot of front adjustments, calls. You’re kind of the leader out there.”

Colbert senses the same thing. It may not happen for him this year, he said, but he would love to be the captain of the Hawkeyes' defense by his junior or senior season. That is why he appreciates getting practice reps at both spots.

“Once you have that confidence, you know where you’re supposed to go, you know what gap you’re supposed to be in,” said Colbert, who had 52 tackles last season. “You can just play.”

Niemann, whose older brother Ben was a three-year starter as Iowa’s outside linebacker, is trying to make the biggest adjustment. Moving to one of the middle spots is robbing him of much of the space he was used to operating in, where he could use his speed as an advantage.

“The picture’s a lot different. I’m trying to get used to seeing the box. Just getting the reps in practice now has been the most critical part, for sure,” said Niemann, who made 43 tackles last season.

“You’re going to be taking on a lot more offensive linemen, fullbacks.”

Wallace said he’d put Doyle, of Iowa City West, as his fourth option at the inside spots right now. But it’s a fluid situation, with plenty of time to play out.

Wallace has been keeping it a secret from his linebackers heading into each practice who will be taking how many reps at which position. Barrington Wade and Logan Klemp have been working at the outside spot for the occasions when the Hawkeyes might face a run-heavy team that still employs two tight ends and a fullback.

As for the others ... 

“I’m trying personally to create that stress, that anxiety on these guys. They don’t know their reps going into practice. They don’t know their reps going into a specific portion of practice,” Wallace said.

The first priority is identifying the all-important middle linebacker.

“There’s a lot of administrative work that wants to be done at the ‘Mike’ linebacker position. There’s so much knowledge that needs to be had, and there’s so much that has to be communicated” before the snap, Wallace said. “They have to manage the game just like a quarterback.

 “We’ll find out coming out of the spring who is the most knowledgeable.”

The dominoes will fall from there. But, this year, there aren’t nearly as many dominoes to play with.