Iowa's Kyler Fisher, Jay Higgins carrying on Jestin Jacobs, Jack Campbell's linebacker legacy
Iowa's linebacker corps is something special right now.
The Hawkeyes have three starters with potential to play professional football after this season. And there is a group of athletes behind them ready to continue the linebacker legacy in Iowa City.
“Even before Jack Campbell and Seth Benson were leaders, they looked up to Kristian Welch and Ben Niemann and Nick Niemann,” junior linebacker Jay Higgins said. “It’s always easy to look up to those starters because those starters are good players.
“And more importantly, they’re good people off the field, which is why it’s easy for me to look up to a linebacker like Jack Campbell.”
Let’s take a look at Iowa’s starting linebackers – and what’s behind that nucleus – ahead of the 2022 season.
Triple threat in Seth Benson, Kacl Campbell, JestinJacobs
Iowa’s linebacker trio returns to Kinnick Stadium this season, and with them comes a ton of worthy preseason hype.
All three athletes were named to the Butkus Award watch list, an award given to the nation’s top linebacker each season. Iowa is the only program in the country with three linebackers on the watch list.
Campbell was tapped as the preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Jacobs is poised for a breakout season, and Benson rounds out a talented top three that has become the backbone of the Hawkeyes’ defense.
The three combined for more than 300 tackles last season. Jacobs allowed just one touchdown in coverage last year.
With linebackers coach Seth Wallace at the helm, the Hawkeyes not only have three reliable starters ready to play at the next level, they also have a line of future greats behind them ready for a chance of their own.
So who comes next?
Four names are high on the list to take over the starting linebacker duties when Benson, Campbell and Jacobs graduate: Kyler Fisher, Jaden Harrell, Jay Higgins and Karson Sharar.
Some of those names should be familiar to Hawkeye fans, as they’ve already started to make a name for themselves on special teams.
“I compliment our special teams … they are the catalysts behind our specialty, the linebacker corps,” Wallace said. “You go back and look at the punt block against Nebraska and then you pause it when Kyler Fisher’s running into the end zone. You look behind him and you’ve got three other linebackers behind him.
“These guys get a taste of football pretty early because they’re out there on special teams, so they can’t hide from it. They’re out there, and then, to me, that only advances them when the time is right for them to go in there defensively.”
Fisher has taken advantage of every snap, be it on defense or on special teams. Fans won’t soon forget his touchdown off a blocked punt against Nebraska last season. From the snap to the moment Fisher entered the end zone, just seven seconds had passed. Fisher can break down the play to the smallest detail.
“Henry Marchese, we game-planned it,” Fisher said. “Henry was going to come real tight off the edge and I was supposed to attract the guy inside to give him the lane. I saw him coming and I knew he was tight, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, he has a real good chance of blocking this.’”
Fisher heard the punt get blocked. He looked around before realizing he was in the perfect position – "right place, right time" as he describes it – to make the catch. Running the rest of the way into the end zone was the easy part.
It was a huge moment for Fisher, a walk-on turned scholarship player who Wallace described as the “kid in the blue cleats” when he first saw him at a camp in St. Louis.
Fisher speaks with a level of football IQ synonymous with those potential NFL-bound teammates. Harrell, Higgins and Sharar do the same.
What goes into developing Iowa’s next great set of linebackers?
There are the tangibles coaches look for when scouting a linebacker: speed, vision, explosiveness and flexibility.
Iowa also looks for linebackers who share the same core values. Benson is from South Dakota. Campbell hails from Cedar Falls. Jacobs comes from Ohio. Out of the group of four set to be the next starting linebackers, three are from Iowa. Higgins came to Iowa City from Indiana.
Wallace said that's a conscious decision. When recruiting linebackers, he looks for players typically within a 4- to 5-hour radius from Iowa City.
“When you’ve got a collection of (players) that all share similar values, that when they do go home, they’ve got somebody telling them, 'Hey, you gotta get back to Iowa City,'" Wallace said.
“I also think a lot of these kids grew up being a fan of the Big Ten, and I think the Big Ten has its own values. I think if you grew up appreciating the Big Ten and the style of football … you’re going to be a good fit.”
Higgins agreed with his coach but also joked that there are some physical attributes that come with Midwest recruits: knowing how to tackle in the cold, for starters.
Across the board, several linebackers said that Iowa’s linebacker room just focuses on putting in the work and getting the job done – be it in the starting position or off the bench.
“I would just say handling your business,” said Jacobs, when asked what makes a successful linebacker at Iowa. “Just knowing you came here for a reason; you came here to work and get better. You came here to get the best that you can at your craft.
“I feel like that’s what makes a linebacker. You don’t make excuses. Each and every day you show up and you’re ready to go.”
Development is a group effort
“The guys that are out in front are really doing a good job, not only leading that linebacker room but also leading our defense,” Wallace said. “You really don’t have a place to hide in that linebacker room. They’ve all got their own unique leadership qualities but they’re doing a great job of mentoring the younger guys.”
No place to hide.
For the younger players sharing the linebacker room with three future pros, those athletes can either do their own thing and ignore the expertise in front of them or capitalize on the opportunity.
Wallace says the next group of athletes opt for the latter.
“What you don’t get to see is the everyday around here,” Wallace said. “You don’t get to see Jestin Jacobs taking Kyler Fisher and pulling him aside, talking to him about the route that he just saw or Jack Campbell meeting with Jay Higgins in the linebacker room for an hour after one of our meetings. That speaks to the culture of this team and this program."
Alyssa Hertel is the college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.