This offseason, Black Heart Gold Pants is undertaking the unenviable task of ranking the greatest players of the Kirk Ferentz era. From 1999-2019, we’re emptying the memory banks, popping in the highlight tapes, and embracing the controversy as we try to determine who stands out as the best of the best. We’ll start by ranking the top five players at every position group before moving on to the top 25 players regardless of position. Rankings are based on college performance and do not take professional success into account.
Kirk Ferentz is a former collegiate linebacker, so it should come as little surprise that he and his staff have excelled at identifying and developing talent at that position. Together with former defensive coordinator Norm Parker, a man who coached several elite linebackers over his storied career, the Ferentz-era Hawkeyes developed a reputation for producing hard-hitting, old-school linebackers whose physical brand of football embodied the spirit of the program. Narrowing this long list of players down to the top five wasn’t easy, but here’s who stood out as the best of the best.
5. Fred Barr (1999-2002)
Barr was a four-year standout at middle linebacker who helped elevate Iowa from the dregs of the Big Ten to an eleven-win team over the course of his career. The emotional leader of a defense that ranked 5th in the country against the run in 2002, Barr was a physical run-stopper best remembered for the devastating hits he laid on ballcarriers at the line of scrimmage. Barr twice led the team in tackles, earned first team All-Big Ten honors as a senior, and ranks eighth in career tackles at the university. Barr’s intensity and leadership helped create a winning culture under Ferentz, and it’s tough to imagine the 2002 season happening without his immense contributions on and off the field.
4. Pat Angerer (2006-2009)
Pat Angerer might as well have been created in a lab to play middle linebacker for Kirk Ferentz and Norm Parker. Even his name was intimidating. Angerer was buried on the depth chart during his first three seasons on campus, but exploded his junior year, earning second team All-Conference honors after recording 107 tackles and five interceptions. His senior season was even more impressive, as the first team All-American compiled 145 tackles, led the league in tackles per game against conference opponents (12.8), and finished fourth in the country in tackles per game (11.2).
While Angerer’s peak wasn’t as long as the remaining players on this list, it was just as high. Angerer was tenacious at fighting off blockers and used his elite instincts to gravitate towards the ball. His sensational performance against Penn State in 2009 (14 tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble) helped propel Iowa to an upset victory, and his clutch goal line stop against Michigan State that same season forced the Spartans to settle for a field goal in a play that seemed momentous at the time, but took on an entire new significance when the Hawkeyes won the game by only two points. On a defense full of stars, Angerer’s arguably shined the brightest.
3. Abdul Hodge (2002-2005)
An absolute tackling machine, Abdul Hodge finished his career as one of the most prolific linebackers in Iowa history. The hulking middle linebacker ranks second in program history in single season tackles (a whopping 158 in 2005) and third in career tackles (453). He was a three-time All-Big Ten honoree and was a third team All-American as a junior in 2004. His senior year he led the conference and was third in the nation in both total and solo tackles per game.
Hodge’s running mate Chad Greenway slightly overshadowed him in the accolade department, but his play on the field was consistently electrifying. His dominant game against Iowa State in 2003 helped end the program’s five-game losing streak to their in-state rivals and established the sophomore as a force to be feared and a worthy successor to Fred Barr.
He also had a knack for coming up big in bowl games, setting tackle records for both the Capital One (16) and Outback Bowls (19). Whenever Iowa’s defense needed a play, Hodge was there to lay the hammer down.
2. Chad Greenway (2002-2005)
It seems fitting that Greenway and Hodge should be slotted next to one another on this list given how productive the two players were when they shared the field together. As seniors, Greenway and Hodge accounted for over 300 combined tackles, and while Hodge’s 453 career tackles slightly outpace Greenway’s 416, the standout weakside backer proved capable of making plays in every facet of the game. In the opening game of 2004, the first of Greenway’s two All-American seasons, he totaled ten tackles (two for loss), blocked a punt, and picked off two passes, the second of which he returned for a touchdown. As good as Greenway had been in his second team All-Big Ten sophomore campaign, it was clear from the onset that he’d reached and entirely new level as an upper classman.
It would be easier to make a list of things Greenway COULDN’T do as a collegiate linebacker to than make a list of what he could. Elite against the run, skilled at rushing the quarterback, and athletic enough to shine in pass coverage, Greenway was the ultimate defensive weapon who was capable of making plays all over the field. Offenses tried to avoid him, but Greenway’s long arms and ability to accelerate to the ball carrier like a missile made that virtually impossible. Greenway put on an absolute linebacker clinic in his final game in Kinnick Stadium, racking up fifteen tackles and an interception while stifling the nation’s leading rushing attack.
With two All-American nods and three All-Big Ten selections, Greenway is arguably the greatest weakside linebacker in Iowa history. It would take a real monster to keep him from claiming the top spot.
1. Josey Jewell (2014-2017)
Only one Iowa linebacker in program history has won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. Only one Hawkeye has won the Jack Lambert Trophy (awarded to college football’s top linebacker) or the Lott IMPACT Trophy. Only one linebacker under Kirk Ferentz has been named a unanimous consensus All-American. Only one player in the Ferentz era has been named a permanent team captain as a sophomore and earned that distinction three years in row. That player deserves recognition as the greatest linebacker to play under Kirk Ferentz.
That man is the Outlaw.
Josey Jewell started his career as a weakside linebacker, but his transition to middle linebacker as a sophomore saw him unlock his full potential and blossom into a singular defensive force. Jewell’s sophomore campaign saw him earn second team All-Big Ten honors while making 126 tackles and intercepting four passes, a feat he managed to replicate as a junior. It was his senior year, however, that saw Jewell complete his evolution into an elite linebacker, making first team All-Conference and All-American teams and racking up a Big Ten-leading 136 tackles, 13.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 11 pass deflections, two picks, and countless bone-crushing hits. The man was named a starter on BTN’s All-Decade team for a reason.
Greenway and Hodge may have made the best linebacking duo, but Josey Jewell stands out as the single best linebacker of the Ferentz era.
Composite BHGP Staff Rankings:
5. Christian Kirksey
4. Pat Angerer
3. Abdul Hodge
2. Chad Greenway
1. Josey Jewell
The only player who my colleagues collectively ranked differently than I did is Christian Kirksey, but you won’t hear me complaining about his inclusion on this list. While Kirksey was sometimes overshadowed by his running mates Anthony Hitchens and James Morris and somehow never earned above third team All-Conference, he was a true jack-of-all-trades at Iowa and was one of the most versatile outside linebackers the program has seen. As my colleague Tnels20 wrote:
“Kirksey did anything and everything on the field as a Hawkeye. He played both inside and outside and excelled at each. Iowa didn’t even have to think about playing a fifth defensive back when Kirksey played because he was that versatile.”
If you think picking the top linebackers was tough, just wait until next week when we tackle the defensive line!