I wrote a few weeks back about the leadership, experience and strength of the Iowa Hawkeyes returning offensive line starters and how I believed that their collective and individual dominance will dictate how this offense flows, both in the run game and with whatever the new passing game under Brian Ferentz looks like.
Much is the same for the linebackers on the defensive side of the ball.
If the offensive line is the year in and year out heart of the Kirk Ferentz system, the recent slew of linebackers that have come through this program are the lifeblood. Think about all of the guys and personalities that have come out of this unit since 2005. Abdul Hodge, Chad Greenway, Mike Klinkenborg (love you Klinkenborg), A.J. Edds, the greatest American Pat Angerer, Jeremiha Hunter, James Morris (poor man’s Josey Jewell), Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and Cole Fisher, just to name a few.
While it may be a little early still, I’m more than ready to throw the three returning starting seniors on that expansive list. Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower are intriguing (I will never forget "Just get us 14”), talented (Bower is a linebacker I enjoy watching now... who would’ve thought?), and have the day in and day out moxy (look at me with the talking head buzzwords) that defines Hawkeye linebackers.
And on top of all of that, they represent the “Win. Graduate. Do it right.” mantra that we’ve come to expect from the third act of the Ferentz Era.
And we all love it (you know you do).
While there will be some opportunities for guys like Jack Hockaday and Aaron Mends to get us all hyped up for next years preview (practice/special teams/fill in spots/injuries), we all know the core three guys that linebackers coach Seth Wallace is entrusting to clean up anything that gets into the heart of Phil Parker’s defense.
Take a look:
LB Defensive Scholarship Distribution
|POS||SR||JR||SO||RS FR||Incoming FR|
|POS||SR||JR||SO||RS FR||Incoming FR|
|LB||Bo Bower; Josey Jewell; Ben Niemann; Kevin Ward||Jack Hockaday; Aaron Mends||Amani Jones; Kristian Welch||Nick Niemann; Kyle Taylor; Barrington Wade||Nate Wieland|
Bo, Niemann and the Family Jewell’s
We all know what Josey Jewell is. He was second in the Big Ten in tackles last year. He’s basically been named to every Watch List you can be named to as a defensive player/linebacker. He was Iowa’s MVP on the defense last year, a second team All-Big Ten player and one of the most fundamentally entertaining play makers in the country. There is nothing on the football field that the once two-star prospect out of Decorah cannot do.
And he’s going to get paid handsomely for that continued consistency.
Based on his past performances, plus the fact that this is his curtain call in Iowa City, you can go ahead and book another 100+ tackles, a few series where he completely takes over and changes the outcome of a game (pass deflections, sack, interception, bone-rattling tackles) and the phenomenal leadership and work ethic that has been passed down year by year by year.
But don’t forget about his presumed running mates in Bo Bower and Ben Niemann who combined for 160 tackles during the 2016 season too.
Bower is one of those typical Iowa stories that we all gobble up during the off season (which inevitably becomes a Big Ten Network hit piece). How many times did we hear last year about Bower’s perseverance during a time when most pre-Madonna players (who started as redshirt freshman) in other conferences would’ve transferred out to get their playing time back?
If that came out as though I’m hating on it, I’m not. I love those pieces. I love that both the local and national media continues to pick up stories like this. Bower deserves for it to be told. It’s why Rudy is one of the greatest sports movies on the planet. He was never supposed to make it here.
As an initial walk on, Bower started 13 games, lost his job because he kept getting beat like he stole something in the TaxSlayer Bowl, got sidelined the following year after he was beat out by a senior for the weakside linkebacker position and still didn’t stop. He didn’t let those circumstances beat him. He kept pushing, kept getting stronger, kept getting better.
While he may not be the fastest or the greatest linebacker you’ve ever seen in an Iowa uniform, what he brings is worth its weight in gold. There is no substitute for a guy in a locker room (especially at a developmental program like Iowa) that is pound for pound, one of Iowa’s most mentally tough guys. Watching first hand what Bower did makes everyone better. In the weight room. In the film room. On the practice field. On the actual playing field. It gives the walk-on’s hope, and with that sliver of hope they inevitably push the scholarship athlete’s to not take a day off. Suddenly, both of them are going head to head in truly open position battles.
Fight for the job. Fight to keep the job. No off weeks.
If you don’t love that ideology... well, you can leave it. We don’t want your lack of competition in these parts anyways.
Bower knows that Amani Jones and Mends are on his heels, even if they really aren’t. He knows how quickly all of it can go away. I just don’t suspect that it will.
In terms of Niemann, I think it goes without saying that a healthier campaign can go a long way. He caught on towards the end of last year when he was fully healthy and if he can stay that way, he should be able to match up in coverage much better than he did to start the season. Niemann’s best asset is his speed, so it’s no wonder why he looked sub par to start last season after straining his hamstring before the start of last season.
All you have to do is flash back to the Michigan game though to see what Niemann can be all season long. Hopefully after an off season without any injury worry, we can see that for a complete season for the first time and see way more of this:
Sorry, couldn’t pass up that opportunity.
When all three of these guys come together, they’re the straw that stirs the drink on the Iowa defense. They aren’t expected to rush the passer. They aren’t expected to do anything miraculous in coverage. They know their lane and they (I wish I could curse like a coach) freaking deliver.
Nothing should be any different this year.
I’m not going to pretend to know a mass amount about the guys behind these three. I’m not in Iowa City. I’m not watching practice. I know that Mends has made a name for himself as a pass rushing force in Raider packages and that the coaching staff has high hopes for Hockaday and Jones.
I know that isn’t much.
But what I fully believe is that every single one of them will be able to fill right in when their name is called.
I remember reading a Mas Casa story about Wallace back in April. In that story there was a snippet from Jewell who was talking about how this position group has passed down leadership skills and how serious he takes that part of his job:
“All three of us, Ben, Bo and myself,” Jewell said, “we have to come off to the sidelines after we’re done with a series and be able to talk to the younger guys and make sure they understand. That’s what happened for us. When we were freshmen, there were those three guys ahead of us — (Christian) Kirksey, (Anthony) Hitchens and (James) Morris. They had amazing teaching moments and really could help a guy out. That’s the job of a senior to do here.”
That’s how to leave a lasting legacy. Dominate every time you’re on the field and when you step off, get with the young guys that are next in line. Explain to them what you saw, why you reacted the way you did, and then ask them what they are seeing. Build up the mental aspect of the game so that when they get their opportunity, they are able to see what’s in front of them and react accordingly.
Jewell, Bower and Niemann are going to make a lot of plays on the field this year. Collectively, they might just be the best linebacking corp in the Big Ten. But after this season ends, and these leaders graduate and move on to the NFL or the real world, it won’t be the last we hear of them.
They will have a lasting impression on each and every one of the new guys that we preview, just like the linebackers before them. And then they’ll do the same.
Work hard. Compete. Repeat.