Iowa football: New assistant Jay Niemann explains his recruiting pitch, Amani Jones' role
The Jay Niemann hire already seems like a success, even before the newest Iowa football assistant coaches a game for the Hawkeyes.
Niemann, 58, can provide a recruiting pitch that hits home every time he walks into a prospect’s living room. Both his sons have played for Kirk Ferentz in his native state.
“I can walk into any home … and I can tell any parent and look them straight in the eye,” Niemann said during his Hawk Central radio show debut Wednesday night, “and tell them, ‘I had opportunities for my sons to go to several different programs. And they chose to go to Iowa because of how we felt as a family to send them here.’”
Niemann’s oldest son, Ben, was a three-year starting linebacker for Iowa and now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. His youngest, Nick, is a redshirt junior for the Hawkeyes vying for a starting linebacker job.
When Niemann was hired May 1 to essentially succeed the venerable Reese Morgan, the biggest question was whether he could deliver the same kind of in-state recruiting prowess that Morgan did. Although that remains to be seen, Niemann did explain Wednesday that his deep Iowa roots should help.
Ferentz divvied up the state four ways, but Niemann has by far the biggest slice — which includes the middle of Iowa, from Minnesota's border to Missouri's. (LeVar Woods handles northwest Iowa, Kelvin Bell was assigned northeast Iowa and Brian Ferentz recruits southeast Iowa.)
“I had recruited (the central) portion of the state extensively at three other places,” Niemann said of previous coaching stops at Drake, Northern Iowa and Simpson College that totaled 19 years. “So, especially the key coaches at some of the bigger schools are guys I’ve had long-standing relationships with and still do.
“The reception’s been outstanding. I feel good about our relationships as a coaching staff and mine personally, and (am) really looking forward to working with all these high school coaches who do such a great job with their programs.”
Some other notable snippets from our 20-minute interview with Iowa’s assistant defensive line coach:
Niemann was almost amused at his own wild journey of the past seven months.
“It was unusual, to say the least,” he said, “even by coaching standards.”
He was not retained by Rutgers after three years there as defensive coordinator (including a 14-7 loss to Iowa in 2016), making him a free agent.
He latched onto a senior defensive analyst job with Les Miles at Kansas, but only for a few weeks. In February, he was hired as an on-field defensive coach at Wyoming. He stayed with Craig Bohl and the Cowboys through spring practice, but couldn’t pass up an opportunity to return home — where he could also see his son every day — following Morgan’s retirement.
From New Jersey to Kansas to Wyoming to Iowa in about five months.
“We loved Wyoming. It’s a really good staff. A really good head coach and a really good program. A beautiful part of the country,” Niemann said. “But when we went there, we obviously had no idea this was going to happen.”
Niemann is 1-0 at Kinnick Stadium against Kirk Ferentz.
Niemann was Northern Illinois’ defensive coordinator during the 2013 season opener in Iowa City, when safety Jimmie Ward — who became a first-round NFL Draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers — recorded a late interception of Jake Rudock to deliver the Huskies a stunning, 30-27 win.
“My first memory was how electric the stadium is,” Niemann recalled. “This is one of the best venues in college football. … It was also about 200 degrees out that day. I mean, it was hot.
“I know the Iowa fans probably struggle with that one, but just thinking about that … there were probably six or so NFL guys on that team at NIU.”
About that recent photo from Monday’s defensive-line dinner from the downtown Vue Rooftop restaurant …
Niemann said he (thankfully) wasn’t stuck with the bill for 17 hulking players and two coaches. A reasonable estimate would suggest that there was 5,000 pounds of humanity in that room.
“Those guys can put down some food, I can tell you that,” Niemann said. “They had some big ol' steaks and a bunch of appetizers.
"Nobody went away hungry.”
One of the players in the photo, Amani Jones, is doing well in his defensive-line transition.
Jones was Iowa’s middle linebacker to start the 2018 season, but quickly lost his job after mental errors. He’s since transitioned to a defensive-end role, but missed much of spring practice with an injury.
Niemann, who came on board after spring drills, said Jones is healthy and has been a full participant in summer workouts. That's good news. Jones and freshman John Waggoner were listed as the No. 2 defensive ends (behind A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston) in the preseason depth chart released last week.
“He certainly has a lot of intangible qualities. He is a very explosive player,” Niemann said. “Hopefully now, we can get him into training camp healthy and take off where they left off. And hopefully that’s going to put him on the field and be able to help us situationally, as we get into the season.”
Iowa players report to fall camp Aug. 1; their first practice is Aug. 2.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.