Iowa’s linebacking corps is in a strange spot entering the 2020 season. With the Hawkeyes increasingly relying on the 4-2-5 defense to increase their team speed and better adapt to pass-happy spread offenses, Iowa is likely to play two linebackers as opposed to three for the majority of the snaps next year. Furthermore, the loss of Kristian Welch to graduation deprives Iowa of its most successful linebacker from 2019, a sure tackler who provided leadership and playmaking out of his MLB spot. Finally, the transfer of Iowa’s presumptive starter at middle linebacker Dillon Doyle to Baylor has diminished the depth at this position group, creating further doubt that the Hawkeyes will roll with many 4-3 sets in 2020.
The Hawkeyes may have fewer linebackers on the field this year than many fans are used to, but their importance to the overall defense has not diminished. With the loss of three starters on the defensive line and two in the defensive backfield, the linebacking corps will be relied on to make plays against both the run and the pass at a level not seen since Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann, and Bo Bower terrorized opposing offenses in 2017. For Iowa to continue its recent streak of producing elite defenses, Iowa’s linebackers need to level up this season.
The Sure Things:
Iowa’s linebackers are being trained to play every role in their position group, so it’s a safe bet that the coaching staff will try to put the best two players on the field at once regardless of their listed position. Fortunately, Iowa returns two linebackers with significant starting experience over the past two seasons. Junior Djimon Colbert has started 23 games at weakside linebacker and brings the speed and athleticism of a former defensive back to the linebacking corps. Colbert made 61 tackles last season and really grew into his weakside position, showing noticeable improvement in terms of positional awareness and physicality which allowed him to beat blockers and make nice stops with regularity.
Still, Colbert is far from a finished product, and he struggled at times during Iowa’s Holiday Bowl matchup against USC. Tnels20 did a great video breakdown of Colbert’s play last week and outlined in detail how the rising could continue his growth and round into a major player for the Hawkeyes next season. If he can manage to make the leap, he could have a big year in 2020.
Also returning is senior Nick Niemann, an experienced outside linebacker who has started thirteen games throughout his Hawkeye career. Niemann has shown that he can play both inside and outside, and his rangy frame and strong tackling ability has made him a real asset against both the run and the pass. Niemann was particularly impactful spelling Colbert in the second half of the Holiday Bowl, coming up with a strip sack and returning an interception for a touchdown.
Both Niemann and Colbert have the potential to slide inside to fill the vacant middle linebacker role or hold things down on the weakside. Regardless of who fits where, these two are the most likely candidates to fill Iowa’s starting linebacker spots this year.
Iowa’s top two linebackers may be fairly well established for 2020, but there will still be plenty of opportunities for other players to make an impact at that position. Senior Barrington Wade should get the first crack at locking down a starting job in Iowa’s 4-3 set. Wade earned a start against Wisconsin last season and has been a consistent presence on the two-deeps over the past two years. If ever there was a time for Wade to make his push, that time is now.
Also in the mix will be a pair of sophomores in Jack Campbell and Seth Benson. Campbell saw some time at middle linebacker last season as a true freshman when Welch went down with an injury, and the coaches love the upside of the athletic and sure-tackling 6-5 linebacker. He could work his way into the starting lineup if neither Niemann or Colbert are able to solidify the middle linebacker spot or if Iowa spends more time in its 4-3 defense than expected. Seth Benson saw quite a bit of action on special teams and backed up Colbert at WLB. Benson projects much more one of the two outside positions than the middle but could outmuscle Wade for the WLB job depending on where Colbert and Niemann land.
The wildcard in this position group is redshirt freshman Jestin Jacobs. The four-star high school All-American redshirted last year to put on weight and recover from an injury; he is now listed at 228 lbs. (up from his HS playing weight of 205) and is ready to compete for playing time. An Ohio native, Jacobs turned down an offer from the in-state Buckeyes to sign with Iowa, and his speed, athleticism, and tackling ability make him one of the most intriguing young linebackers Iowa’s had in several years. Jacobs and fellow redshirt freshman Yahweh Jeudy (a former Kansas State commit who earned All-State honors and was a tackling machine in Florida) could both be in the mix for playing time at linebacker this year.
Iowa may only start two linebackers in most of their games this season, but there will be plenty of time for other Hawkeye hitmen to earn their stripes on special teams. Senior Nick Anderson and sophomores Logan Klemp and Mike Timm could all get an opportunity to see the field here, as could incoming freshman Jay Higgins if the former Indianapolis standout proves too good to redshirt. Iowa’s incoming class of walk-on linebackers, which includes Sean Ormiston, Josef Smith, and Eric Epenesa (yes, this guy’s younger brother) are all likely to redshirt, but given Iowa’s track record of turning defensive walk-ons into stars, you can never say for certain.