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2022 position previews: Linebackers

Jack Campbell leads an experienced group of Hawkeye LBs

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NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes have a wealth of talent at linebacker, as they return their top two tacklers from last season’s defense.

The All-American

Jack Campbell was an absolute machine last season at middle linebacker, trailing only Wyoming’s Chad Muma, and finished with 140 total tackles. He added a pair of touchdowns - a game-sealing interception return against Illinois and a fumble return against Iowa State - to go with 3.5 tackles for loss, six passes defended (second on the team), and a sack.

At 6’5”, 243 pounds, he’s taller than what is typically seen at MLB in today’s college football, but it’s not a limiting factor in his range as he goes sideline to sideline as the straw who stirs Iowa’s drink defensively.

Considering how good he was last year, it’s easy to forget how quick his ascension was. After sitting behind a veteran unit his freshman season, he came on slowly after an illness kept him out of Iowa’s first two games of 2020, both losses. His return to the field, even in a part-time role, helped spark a defensive improvement to 13.8 points/game in the six wins.

The expectations Campbell has set for himself and this iteration of the Hawkeye defense are huge, as Phil Steele named him to his preseason first-team All-American team, and Iowa returns 8 starters.

The steady-as-he-goes

Seth Benson is the prototypical Hawkeye in being an inch too short or step to slow (in gym shorts) but always being in the right place at the right time. The fifth-year player has been second on the team in tackles in the last two seasons (152 total) behind Campbell & Nick Niemann before him while adding 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.

Going on his third season as a starter, Benson was plucked from South Dakota where he was a first-team all-stater for his junior & senior seasons including being named the Gatorade Player of the Year. Yet he ranked as just a two-star and chose the Hawks over South Dakota State and has been a contributor ever since.

The prospect

It’s rare for an out-of-state high schooler with Jestin Jacobs’ pedigree to choose the Hawks. The 4-star & top 300 recruit selected Iowa over, most notably, a local Ohio State offer to join the Hawkeyes’ 2019 class and has quietly bided his time as the logjam in front of him continues to sort out. Last season marked a significant uptick in his playing time, as he played in all 14 games and accumulated 53 tackles. His most notable contribution was an interception against Penn State, which allowed Iowa to get the lead in their biggest win of the season:

His role for the upcoming campaign figures to tick up as Iowa hasn’t yet sorted the cash position, which is the defensive back who normally replaces Jacobs on the field when they line up in a 4-2-5. His versatility could see him rotate in for Campbell or Benson to keep everyone fresh or Phil Parker may use him like past outside linebackers with a return to even more 4-3 base defense. His speed and fluidity are key enablers for his sturdy 6’4” frame.

An even more breakout season could vault Jacobs up draft boards, as Pro Football Network prognosticated earlier this week.

The backups

Building depth was a storyline this offseason, as Iowa’s starting linebackers struggled through injuries in spring camp. Jay Higgins was the main benefactor, with Scott Dochterman calling him “a tenacious tackler.” He was one of two leaders in the 2020 recruiting class alongside the departed Deuce Hogan. Perhaps he sees some rotation in the meaty part of games to keep Campbell & Benson fresh but he looks primed for a starting role in 2023.

Also named in the spring depth chart were junior Kyler Fisher & senior Logan Klemp. Fisher had his moment in the sun, returning a blocked Nebraska punt to the house to set the comeback in motion. Let’s relive it.

As it stands, if Iowa is faced with any attrition at the position it probably looks like Jacobs slotting in and/or even more 4-2-5 looks and then Higgins as the next primary backup.

Others

Behind the six upper classmen are a bevy of freshman, redshirt and otherwise. Most notable among the eight listed by Doc in the link above are redshirt freshman Eric Epenesa, brother to AJ Epenesa and currently a walk on. Justice Sullivan was the most highly-touted recruit among them as a 4-star out of Eden Prairie, MN. Jayden Montgomery & Landyn Van Kekerix are the two incoming scholarship freshman. An elevation into special teams for any of those listed - or those left off! - would be the best pathway to playing time for them.