Amani Hooker very well might have changed Iowa’s philosophy at defense forever with his play last year.
Iowa is switching to a 4-2-5 defense (four defensive lineman, two linebackers, five defensive backs) permanently after finding success with it towards the end of the 2018 campaign. Hooker played what Nick Saban and, if you go back a bit further, Bill Belichick, dubbed the ‘STAR’ position during a press conference back in 2012.
Iowa calls it the ‘cash’ position, but the idea is the same. It is basically a hybrid defensive back-linebacker position that has its origins in the very common nickel defense.
The twist, here, is the ‘Star’ player plays in the position of outside linebacker more often than not and are called to do all the different things players in both spots do: basically be able to blitz, be effective run stoppers, able to cover any player on the field while maintaining those assignments and that sort of thing.
Nickel is normally used in pass situations, but with the advent and popularity of spread offenses — even in the Big Ten, with its crusty and hard-hitting play that has long been the national nuance when talking about the conference — it has become the bread and butter for many coaches around the country.
So what does this mean for Iowa? There’s only two true linebacker spots out there and that’s something the Hawkeyes have never really done.
The (potential) starters
The two guys I feel fairly confident we will see plenty of this year are Kristian Welch and Djimon Colbert. There is a non-zero chance of seeing Nick Niemann as well.
Welch plays middle while Colbert and Niemann are both weakside linebackers. Barrington Wade is also currently listed as the starter at the outside linebacker/nickel spot, but it remains to be seen how much time he will spend there. It seems there is a fair chance D.J. Johnson will have a chance at the cash spot.
Just because Iowa has switched primarily to the 4-2-5 does not mean the 4-3 will not come into play and certain game situations will fall under such.
Welch is interesting, because he played both the middle position and weakside last year. With Nick Niemann injured for a portion of the season, the Hawkeye coaching staff had to get a little creative with their positioning of players.
He replaced Amani Jones in Iowa’s opener after a couple series and never looked back.
He played pretty well throughout the season, recording 49 tackles, with one sack, one interception, one pass break-up, one forced fumble and one recovered fumble.
There is still plenty of progress for him to make and he certainly got burned several times last season, but all together it was a pretty dang good year.
With numerous injuries to its linebackers last year (Iowa used five different combinations of starters through 13 games) a similar story played out for Djimon Colbert, who was nearly a complete unknown before getting a chance to start 10 games and racked up 52 tackles in the process.
Niemann was one of those injured and did not see quite as much time, but should fight for a spot once again this year. Whether Niemann or Colbert win the spot obviously remains to be seen.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both players, but do not really be surprised to see both at points this season.
The Other Guys
As mentioned before, Barrington Wade and D.J. Johnson (DJJ has a certain ring to it, no?) seem to be the guys at the hybrid spot.
Wade has reportedly been injured for part of this preseason, so Johnson, I think we can assume, has been seeing lots of reps. Wade played in 12 games last year, though sparingly and mostly on special teams, recording just three tackles.
The only other linebacker listed on the two-deeps is Dillon Doyle, who will probably be about as fit as anyone on the team. I mean that is what happens when your dad is one of the most well-known head strength and conditioning coaches in the country.
Jones is another guy to watch, but he has mostly moved to the defensive line at this point.
Other than that? A big ole question mark. Iowa usually builds its linebacking depth off its special teams so there is certainly a chance to see some of those guys in that area of the game this fall.
Regardless, this should be a fairly formidable group next year. The linebackers at the top have some experience and the Hawkeyes have had good success with developing and finding talent. Expect more of the same this year.