Linebacker is one of those position groups under the Kirk Ferentz regime where Hawkeye fans seldom worry. There’s a long, storied history of talent and development and production at the position that’s resulted in 8 NFL draft picks and nearly a dozen others getting a shot in an NFL training camp.
But this year is a rebuilding year in the unit. The Outlaw is now Red Beard, roaming the middle of Mile High Stadium. He’s joined there by Bo Bower. And the third piece of last season’s Iowa linebacking group, Ben Niemann, is in Kansas City with fellow former Hawkeye Anthony Hitchens.
So the 2018 Iowa Hawkeyes will be breaking in three new linebackers in a year where the offense may be as good as we’ve seen in quite some time. How quickly they pick things up and how well they play down the stretch will play a key role in whether the Hawkeyes can challenge Wisconsin for the Big Ten West, or if they’re simply playing for second place.
The Man in the Middle
Amani Jones - JR - Chicago, IL (Phillips) - 6’0” 230 lbs
This groups is going to go as far as its captain takes them. This year, it’s true junior Amani Jones. The Phillips High (Chicago) product has spent his first two seasons primarily on special teams, but he’s seen action in 25 games over two seasons. He’s also gotten some spot duty at linebacker, recording 10 total tackles.
That’s a far cry from the 433 career tackles, 10 sacks and 6 interceptions that walked out the door when Jewell graduated. Jones is not going to be Josey Jewell. Nobody could.
But here’s what Jones brings: he’s incredibly physical. The guy looks like a refrigerator mashed on top of a pair of locomotive pistons. He’s the walking stereotype for a guy who’s bought in to what Coach Doyle preaches.
Did I mention he squats north of 600 pounds? Yeah, the dude is physical. He may be better from a pure athletic ability than Josey Jewell was. The real question mark is how he can utilize that ability to the benefit of the team.
The biggest hurdle for any new middle linebacker is learning the defense, learning how to diagnose plays from the offense and getting his teammates where they need to be. That’s where there will certainly be a dropoff from The Outlaw to Jones. How quickly can he pick up on things to be the leader this defense needs? Hopefully soon.
Nick Niemann - SO - Sycamore, IL (Sycamore) - 6’4” 232 lbs
In Jones’ own words, the transition at linebacker this year is going from “the guy” (Jewell) to “the unit.”
As we look beyond the replacement for one guy to the replacement of the entire unit, we don’t have to look beyond the Niemann family to find the projected starting outside linebacker in 2018. After losing Ben Niemann to the Chiefs, the Hawkeyes are slated to rely on younger brother Nick to take over on the outside.
The younger Niemann is a near carbon copy of his older brother, though Nick is an inch taller at 6’4” at roughly the same weight (232 pounds). The Sycamore, Illinois native is a RS sophomore this season, so we could see him slotted in the starting lineup for years to come. To date, Niemann his almost exclusively seen action on special teams, recording just 5 career tackles in 13 appearances
On the field, expect a similar player to his older brother. The one major difference, at least according to defensive coordinator Phil Parker, is that Nick is faster and possibly more athletic.
That should help Niemann the Younger in the passing game and in getting the angle on runners. All those give me hope the dropoff from one Niemann to the other won’t be a major issue.
The Other Guy
Kristian Welch - JR - Iola, WI (Iola-Scandinavia) - 6’3” 238 lbs
With Jones and Niemann being the starters in waiting for some time now, the other linebacking spot was up for grabs. At one point, Aaron Mends was an assured starter alongside Jones and likely Niemann, but his unfortunate injury situation has left the door open. As of now, it appears true junior Kristian Welch will be the other guy.
Like both Jones and Niemann, Welch has spent his first few years at Iowa primarily seeing the field on special teams, but he did see his work with the defense grow in 2017. While Welch didn’t have his number called upon last season when the Hawkeyes needed a new face to fill in for an injured Josey Jewell (that was first Jack Hockaday and then Kevin Ward), he did carve out some time as the season wore on.
In total, Welch has recorded 9 tackles in 24 game appearances. He’s also got a pass defended and in last year’s route of Nebraska, Welch recorded his career high three tackles and his first ever interception, which he returned 33 yards.
You have to like the athleticism Welch brings at 6’3” and 238 pounds. He is solid in coverage and the reports that he’s playing with passion and intensity that few others can match should give Iowa fans some hope.
Jack Hockaday - SR - Forsyth, IL (Marda-Forsyth) - 6’1” 235 lbs
Barrington Wade - SO - Skokie, IL (Niles North) - 6’1” 233 lbs
Djimon Colbert - RS FR - Shawnee Mission, KS (Bishop Meige) - 6’1” 234 lbs
The three assumed starters have only been the assumed starters for a short time. The line between them and the guys listed second on the most recent depth chart may not be that thick. As it stands, we see senior Jack Hockaday listed as the primary backup to Amani Jones, RS sophomore Barrington Wade behind Nick Niemann and RS freshman Djimon Colbert, a converted safety, behind Kristian Welch.
Hockaday was a guy I was really high on as a prospect. He looked like the next Josey Jewell, perhaps before we knew what we had with Josey Jewell. But here we are in Hockaday’s senior season and he’s sitting second on the depth chart. This after being called upon a year ago to step in for an injured Josey Jewell ahead of Jones. That should tell you Jones has show the coaches a lot to get on the field ahead of Hockaday, who is slightly less physically imposing.
Barrington Wade is an interesting name to watch. At 6’1” and 233 pounds, he’s smaller than Niemann, but he’s a converted running back and brings some additional athleticism to a position that’s asked to do a lot. There’s no telling how well he’s picked up the defense, but if he’s called upon I think Wade could do well.
Even more interesting than Wade perhaps is Djimon Colbert, who came to Iowa as a big, physical safety last season. He took a redshirt year and now he’s a linebacker. Doyle’s gonna Doyle. At 6’1” and 234 pounds, Colbert (it’s French, b!@#&) is similar in stature to Wade, but he brings the mindset of someone who’s spent his prep days in the secondary.
We heard a lot of talk last year about Parker playing with the idea of putting a safety at linebacker in certain situations and here we have one that converted. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we got some glimpses of Colbert in certain packages to test this idea and get him some experience. I really like the idea of a big safety being the guy asked to cover a tight end or running back in the flat in passing situations.
Jayden McDonald - FR - Suwanee, GA (North Gwinnett) - 6’1” 220 lbs
Dillon Doyle - FR - Iowa City, IA (West) - 6’3” 227 lbs
Logan Klemp - FR - Jewell, IA (South Hamilton) - 6’3” 210 lbs
Seth Benson - FR - Sioux Falls, SD (Washington) - 6’1” 205 lbs
The most recent depth chart didn’t show any freshmen, but that’s not an indictment on the incoming guys - it was just put out before they had a chance to show anything.
The class of 2018 included 4 scholarship linebackers. While the depth chart in front of them looks pretty solid and perhaps difficult to crack, it’s not out of the realm of possibility we see one or two of the newcomers get some work with the new redshirt rule, which allows a player to appear in 4 contests and still take a redshirt.
Atop that list is Suwanee, Georgia native Jayden McDonald. McDonald was a 3-star prospect who brings a ton of athleticism. He comes in on the smaller side at 6’1” and 220 per his Hawkeye Sports bio, but his high school film shows a guy who could contribute early, even if only on special teams. McDonald didn’t dress for the Kids Day practice so Hawkeye fans will have to wait a bit longer to get their first live glimpse of him.
In addition to McDonald, a name to watch early is a familiar one for Hawkeyes. Dillon Doyle is the son of strength coach Chris Doyle. The West high product has had more years of development under the legendary strength and conditioning coach than any other player in Hawkeye history, so count me among those who thinks he may be physically ready to contribute early (he comes in at 6’3” and 227 pounds, the biggest linebacker in the class). Doyle got some run with the second group over the weekend, so it seems likely we may see him in Kinnick this fall at some point.
The two other backers signed in 2018 were Jewell, Iowa native Logan Klemp and Sioux Falls, South Datokta native Seth Benson. Both are a bit smaller than McDonald and Doyle. While Klemp has a good frame at 6’3”, he’s listed as 17 pounds lighter than Doyle. Similar story for Benson, who’s listed at the same height at McDonald, but 15 pounds lighter. Heading into fall camp I would’ve looked for Klemp and Benson to take a redshirt year and contribute in 2019 and beyond. However, we saw Benson look really impressive with the second group on Saturday and even get some work with the ones.
There’s a lot to like with this group and between the comments from Kirk regarding linebacker as a position where freshmen may make an impact and what we saw on Saturday, I’m inclined to think a couple of these guys will be mainstays in the lineup for some time. They’ll certainly be contributing on special teams early.
Nick Anderson - JR - Waukee, IA (IWCC) - 6’2” 225 lbs
Colton Dinsdale - JR - Reinbeck, IA (IWCC) - 5’11” 215 lbs
Ben Campos - RS FR - West Des Moines, IA (Valley) - 6’1” 225 lbs
Mitch Riggs - FR - West Des Moines, IA (Dowling) - 6’1” 230 lbs
Mike Timm - FR - Delafield, WI (Kettle Moraine) - 6’1” 220 lbs
Joe Evans - FR - Ames, IA (Ames) - 6’2” 210 lbs
Typically I wouldn’t spend much time talking about walk-ons unless they’ve already been contributors. However, this year’s crop of walk-ons for the Hawkeyes was not only big, but quite impressive.
In total, there are 6 incoming walk-ons at the linebacker postion in 2018. Two of them (Nick Anderson and Colton Dinsdale) are coming over from Iowa Western, and JUCO transfers and have been on campus since January. Look for those guys to get some early run on special teams as there are no concerns about using up eligibility and they’re experienced. They could contribute day one. We’ve seen it from IWCC before (hello Nick Easley).
Beyond the transfer walk-ons, this group includes a number of guys who turned down offers at the FCS level to come to Iowa. Look for guys like Ben Campos, Joe Evans, Mitch Riggs and Mike Timm to take a redshirt year and then work toward a scholarship before they graduate. History tells us with 4 freshmen walk-ons, at least one of them is leaving a scholarship player.