Assume the Position is our offseason guide to the Iowa Hawkeyes football depth chart. The math is difficult, so take it from us: As time moves on, we'll know more. That's why we rank the positions from most certain to least certain.
|52||Quinton Alston||SR||6-1/232||Middle Linebacker|
|50||Chad Gilson||SR(RS)||6-1/235||Middle Linebacker|
|39||Travis Perry||JR(RS)||6-3/232||Outside Linebacker|
|36||Cole Fisher||JR(RS)||6-2/233||Weakside Linebacker|
|6||Reggie Spearman||SO||6-3/230||Weakside Linebacker|
|51||Laron Taylor||SO(RS)||6-0/225||Middle Linebacker|
|47||John Kenny||FR(RS)||6-2/225||Weakside Linebacker|
|43||Josey Jewell||FR(RS)||6-2/225||Outside Linebacker|
|40||Parker Hesse||FR||6-3/205||Outside Linebacker|
|31||Aaron Mends||FR||6-0/205||Middle Linebacker|
|44||Ben Niemann||FR||6-3/200||Outside Linebacker|
Quite possibly the biggest concern of all concerns on Iowa's defense: Three all-conference linebackers all graduated at the same time, taking the experience gained in nine collective seasons as a starter with them. All three had issues in 2012, when Iowa's defense was middling-to-poor. All three were world-class ass-kickers in 2013, as Iowa's defense returned to its usual stellar form. They're gone now, and the guys behind them have pretty much no experience.
The good news? At least we're pretty sure who the three replacements will be. Their combined experience? Two starts, 48 tackles, and one fumble recovery. That's...that's not a lot to work with.
All We Need Is a Little Patience
Quinton Alston (#52, Senior, 6'1, 232 lbs., Timber Creek Regional H.S. (Sicklerville, N.J.)
We promised him top billing last year, and we're not breaking that deal. Quinton Alston, who has spent the last two seasons as the backup linebacker -- not middle linebacker, not weakside linebacker, not strongside linebacker, but LINEBACKER -- has finally had his three-part glass ceiling broken and will be Iowa's starting middle linebacker for 2014.
Alston was a three-star recruit out of New Jersey who chose Iowa over offers from Louisville, Maryland, West Virginia, Boston College, and a host of other low-end BCS programs. By late September of his freshman year, he was contributing on special teams. He earned academic all-conference honors in 2012, the same year he broke into the two-deep as a backup linebacker and earned his first (and only) start against Michigan. Last season, he was featured in Iowa's 'Raider' package as a pass rusher and recorded 12 tackles on the year.
The fairly obvious consensus from the coaching staff was that Alston would be playing for the last two seasons were it not for James Morris and Anthony Hitchens ahead of him, a consensus that made a lot of sense after last season. The coaches remain extremely high on Alston's ability as a linebacker and leader of the defense, however. Phil Parker put his name in ink at the top of the depth chart during spring practice, linebackers coach Jim Reid praised his ability to manage the defense and make playcalls, and his teammates thought enough of him to place him in the team's leadership group for the upcoming season.
There are some Iowa writers who have seized on the fact that there has never been a great Kirk Ferentz defense without a standout defensive end, and they're largely correct. But the true corollary between a position and an Iowa defense comes at middle linebacker. The middle linebacker has responsibility for calling plays and adjustments before the snap, run support, and the difficult center zone in Iowa's two-deep coverages (and, now, in cover 1 as well). If the last two seasons, in which James Morris grew from overmatched to all-conference, weren't enough to convince you of the need for solid middle linebacker play in Iowa's system, just look at 2009 and 2010. Iowa returned almost all of an all-world defense in 2010, all except for one component: Pat Angerer, who was replaced by a mishmash of the oft-injured Jeff Tarpinian, the somewhat-overwhelmed Troy Johnson, and the slow-footed Bruce Davis. And while Iowa's 2010 defense was still excellent, it struggled late in games where it had excelled the year before. These things are not mutually exclusive. And if Iowa is to replicate 2009 in 2014, as we all think it might, it's going to need Alston to be Angerer-like.
The Aptly-Named One
Reggie Spearman (#6, 6'3, 230 lbs., Simeon HS (Chicago))
You need to know one thing about Reggie Spearman: He's a linebacker who wears number 6. Number 6 is not a linebacker number. It's a skill position number. It's a number reserved for guys who run fast and do big things with the football. Reggie Spearman wears it because that's what Reggie Spearman thinks he is. And he might be right.
OK, you need to know two things about Reggie Spearman: He was born on August 17, 1996. That means that when he stepped on the field as a true freshman against Western Michigan and then played in all eight Iowa Big Ten games, not just on special teams but in the third down package and occasionally in regular duty, he was barely 17 years old. He showed up at fall camp at age 16 and somehow didn't redshirt, largely because he was already a fully-formed 6'3, 220-lb. missile. Barring a late redshirt, he'll graduate from Iowa before he is old enough to drink.
There's probably a third thing you should know about Reggie Spearman: He had a commitment ceremony at his school in which he put on a Syracuse hat, then took it off, threw it across the room, and picked up the Iowa hat, then told reporters he was coming to Iowa City "because we are going to win a national championship." He is the least Kirk Ferentz recruit ever.
Fourth thing, and then I swear I'm done: Before committing, Spearman participated in a hilarious Twitter game in which he basically turned fans of the schools competing for his commitment -- Iowa, Illinois, Syracuse, Minnesota -- against each other. It was like Lord of the Flies in his mentions for a week, and then he committed to a program that won't let him even use Twitter. The fact that we are deprived of his brilliance for the next three years is a travesty.
Oh, I almost forgot the fifth thing: He's a really damn good football player with the athletic talent and obvious drive to become one of the greats. Barring injury or off-the-field issues, he'll be the starter on the weakside for the next two to three years. And that's a very, very good thing for Iowa.
Madea Goes to Outside Linebacker
Travis Perry (#39, Junior (RS), 6'2, 233 lbs., Urbandale (IA) HS)
This is the only real question on the linebacker depth chart: Can walk-on Travis Perry play the most difficult position in Iowa's defense capably enough to hold off Josey Jewell?
Perry, like so many Iowa walk-ons, was recruited as a safety. He held some FCS offers from the likes of Northern Iowa and Eastern Illinois, but no FBS program was interested enough to give him a full ride. Perry accepted a preferred walk-on spot with the Hawkeyes over those FCS scholarship offers, then redshirted and put on 25 pounds. He emerged from the cocoon a fully-formed linebacker, entered the two-deep in 2012, started next to Alston against Michigan that November, and spent last season as Christian Kirksey's apprentice and special teams dynamo. He earned a scholarship, which is a fairly good sign that he'll be important this year.
Playing outside linebacker at Iowa is challenging. The outside linebacker has coverage responsibilities on tight ends and slot receivers in most coverages, run support responsibilities on the strong side of the offensive formation, edge blitz assignments on occasion, and even some play contain duties. It never registers as many tackles as the other two spots, and it's largely unheralded for that and the fact that a good cover linebacker is usually invisible. We're fairly sure Perry can cover; he's a converted defensive back and has ample speed for most situations. We're not so sure on the other fronts, mostly because we've never really seen him do it. For what it's worth, Phil Parker was non-committal during the spring, mentioning Perry in the same breath as Jewell and praising Jewell's playmaking ability. Will Perry start the year at outside linebacker? He's the most experienced guy and the coaches' darling, so we're guessing so; ties go to the upperclassman two-time academic all-conference former walk-on weight room success story. But if Jewell keeps progressing and Perry slips up, it could be a brief stay at the top.
While You Wait for the Others
Josey Jewell (#43, Freshman (RS), 6'2, 225 lbs., Decorah (IA) HS)
[O]ne of the guys, Jewell, has really showed up out there, just as a football player. He was an inside backer behind Q and Reggie, really as a backup Will. And we look at it and say, "Who is the guy going out and making plays?" You just watch the film and you just watch the guys running around on tape and you see him tracking guys down.
Somewhere, he's going to have to fit in our system, okay, because when you give that much effort and you attack the football the way he does and make plays the way he's done, he's going to probably show up. Does he know everything right now? Not yet, but he still has a long way to go.
That was Phil Parker after spring. This guy is playing somewhere this year.
Chad Gilson (#50, Senior (RS), 6'1, 235 lbs., Urbandale (IA) HS)
The story of how Gilson got to Iowa is just a bit...ehhhh? He spent three years playing linebacker at UNI (including a redshirt), recording 25 tackles and looking like a potential starter as a junior. He then looked at Iowa's depth chart, saw that all three linebackers were leaving after 2013, and transferred to Iowa City knowing he would have to sit for a year. During a post-spring interview, he used the phrase "saw an opportunity" and "take advantage of" repeatedly. Which he did, and more power to him, and there's no harm in having a walk-on with college football experience. It just feels like he wouldn't be here were it not for a chance to grab an open spot ahead of guys who have been here for longer. I don't know.
Cole Fisher (#36, Junior (RS), 6'2, 233 lbs., Millard North HS (Omaha, NE))
Fisher was listed as an weakside linebacker, which is not exactly an ideal spot for a player who has never really broken through special teams duty and recorded his first career tackle 10 games into his third season with the program. The buzz surrounding him as a redshirt freshman is gone; neither Parker nor Reid mentioned Fisher during their spring press conferences. And now he's been passed by Spearman, a sophomore who only has room to improve. He could move outside, but might run into Jewell on the way there. He's a two-time academic all-B1G selection, but it might be a career in special teams if something doesn't change soon.
Laron Taylor (#51, Sophomore (RS), 6'0, 225 lbs., Cass Tech HS (Detroit))
Taylor's height makes it difficult to project him anywhere but the middle, and he was in second-team duty during spring practice next to Fisher and John Kenny. It's probably the best spot to be in at the moment: Iowa is utilizing young linebackers everywhere else, and while Alston is locked in as the starter at MLB, Taylor could be in line for the job in 2015.
John Kenny (#47, Freshman (RS), 6'2, 225 lbs., Carmel (IN) HS)
Kenny was a big get for Iowa, and entered school early to participate last spring. He had been projected on the outside. The staff moved him to inside linebacker -- at Iowa, that means middle or weakside backer -- almost immediately, and the adjustment essentially required a redshirt. He's now a likely weakside linebacker, and while that means he's blocked by Spearman for the time being, he's earning plaudits from the coaches to the point where he, like Jewell, will probably have to play somewhere soon. Special teams looks most likely for 2014, but he'll likely start shuffling into the lineup in the near future.