Previously on Assume the Position:
Iowa football opinion polestar Marc Morehouse likes to say that certain guys have "union cards" that guarantee them a starting spot, generally due to intangible factors. Never was it more on display last season than linebacker, where the staff started singing the praises of a bunch of extremely unknown young guys in the spring and had installed them ahead of more highly-touted prospects by mid-season. Results were not good (to be fair, they were fairly terrible with the former guys, as well). A wave of offseason transfers included two linebackers who had apparently been frozen out.
And then, earlier this week, the ice broke, and we don't really know what to think. We're just running out of time for definitive information.
MLB: Josey Jewell (#43, Sophomore (RS), 6'2, 230 lbs., Decorah (Iowa) HS)
We didn't think much of Josey Jewell when he committed to Iowa. Jewell was a two-star afterthought and UNI commit, thrown an offer just three days before Signing Day when Iowa's other options went elsewhere. He was a project, a flyer, a potential contributor three or four years down the line but certainly not a top prospect. Iowa takes guys like that all the time. No big deal.
We didn't think much of Josey Jewell when all three starting linebackers were drafted following the 2013 season. Iowa had built-in starters for all three positions, including a junior-to-be at outside linebacker who had experience and fit the part. Sure, Phil Parker was telling anyone who would listen that Josey Jewell had a nose for the ball and would be used somewhere, but that was probably special teams and mop-up duty.
We didn't think much of Josey Jewell when he eventually won the weakside linebacker spot last season. He was Iowa's defensive MVP in the Taxslayer Bowl, a caustic award if there ever was one, and his prior performance (as a backup and in three games as starter at weakside linebacker in place of Reggie Spearman) showed no sign of improvement over the lackluster play of those preceding him. There was some talent there, to be sure, but there was also a naivete and lack of focus understandable, if not expected, from a freshman.
But now? We think quite a bit of Josey Jewell now that he's in the position he seems built to play. Middle linebacker in Iowa's defensive system is perfect for the ball-hounding short guy, so long as his defensive line can keep interior linemen off him. Jewell's coverage responsibilities will be limited, or at least more limited than they were on the outside, and the leadership qualities touted by the staff can shine through as they have for multiple-year starters at middle linebacker in the past. It won't be easy: It took James Morris two years to learn the position, and even Pat Angerer wasn't flawless until he'd been in the program for a few years. But it's a better fit, and a better chance for Jewell to do what the coaches all think he's capable of doing.
OLB: Ben Niemann (#44, Sophomore, 6'3, 225 lb., Sycamore (Ill.) HS)
At the same time Iowa's coaches were hyping Josey Jewell as the next big thing, they were also highlighting true freshman Ben Niemann. Frankly, we were even more skeptical. Not only had Niemann been a two-star recruit whose only FBS offer had come from Northern Illinois (where his dad is defensive coordinator), but the only three non-Iowa schools to offer Niemann had recruited him as a wide receiver. He was MAC-receiver fast, but he was also just 185 pounds as a high school senior. There was no way he was going to play linebacker anytime soon.
He didn't even redshirt. Instead, Niemann ended up on special teams for most of the season, blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown against Northwestern and recording 13 tackles over the course of his first campaign. He filled out to 225 pounds, adding 40 to his frame in about 16 months. He impressed coaches so much that they offered his younger brother later in the year. And he put his name in ink at strongside linebacker.
Outside linebacker is an extremely difficult position for any player, and Niemann will certainly struggle at times. He will be tasked with shadowing tight ends and wide receivers, holding the strongside edge in the running game, and occasionally getting after the quarterback. And when Bo Bower didn't have the grasp of the position needed to overcome his size and speed last season, Iowa's defense struggled with him. But if Niemann's performance and his growth are any indication, he is the future of Iowa outside linebacker, probably the most important position on the defense. He has the frame of guys who have excelled at that position, the speed and agility needed to do everything involved, and the pedigree to understand the game and his position in it. We'll see if that's enough.
Bo Knows Fishing
WLB: Cole Fisher (#36, Senior (RS), 6'2, 235 lbs., Millard North HS (Omaha, Neb.)
WLB: Bo Bower (#41, Sophomore (RS), 6'1, 230 lbs., West Branch (Iowa) HS)
We were convinced that Bo Bower was the absolute, locked-in starter at weakside linebacker. He played significant minutes last season, he looked good during the open scrimmage two weeks ago, and he was another "good story" guy, a "union card" guy, who kept getting playing time despite visible and obvious struggles last season. Iowa had shuffled the positions on these guys, but Bower was going to get his continued opportunity.
And then, earlier this week, Iowa quietly announced that Cole Fisher was the starter at weakside linebacker, at least for the moment, and so we had to scrap the paragraph about how Fisher was destined for a career of special teams duty. We now have a surprising depth chart cage match that should play out through September.
We're still thinking Bower wins. Despite the fact that he's two years Fisher's junior, he already has more experience. Despite joining Iowa as a walk-on, he was good enough in practice to earn a scholarship before playing a game. He entrenched himself as a starter at outside linebacker in August ahead of presumptive starter Travis Perry, picked off a pair of passes, and recorded 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He's moving to a position that makes much more sense, where his deficiencies on the edge can be hidden. And if there's one thing we know he can do, it's tackle, which is just about the only thing that an Iowa weakside linebacker needs to do.
If there is going to be someone to usurp Bower, it would be Fisher. He's a three-time academic all-conference selection and special teams dynamo. He's a senior, which always carries more pull (especially in a linebacker corps lacking in senior leadership). He's a blank slate as an every-down player, which provides some tantalizing upside in a position where Iowa can't seem to find a starter. He's even got that Reese Morgan recruit stamp of approval.
In the end, what happens on the field should matter most, and the devil Kirk knows will probably beat out the devil he doesn't. But that's not at all certain, and an Iowa defense in desperate need of improvement at this position will need certainty soon.
While You Wait for the Others
Travis Perry (#39, Senior (RS), 6'3, 235 lbs., Urbandale (Iowa) HS)
Last year was supposed to be Perry's breakthrough season. He'd been studiously backing up Christian Kirksey for two years. But the Bo Bower Power Hour hit, and suddenly Perry had lost his presumptive starting spot before August camp had even ended. Perry got two starts at weakside linebacker as Iowa flailed for a tackler, but was injured late in the Minnesota game and didn't return until the bowl. Perry's a two-time special teams award winner, and will be the linchpin of an Iowa special teams unit pleading for some senior leadership. Anything beyond that is Ben Niemann struggles or injuries somewhere.
Aaron Mends (#31, Freshman (RS), 6'0, 210 lbs., Winnetonka HS (Kansas City, Mo.))
Mends was moved to fullback last year, but returned to linebacker this spring and was thought to be Bower's backup at weakside linebacker. Fisher's move to the weakside and ascendance to the top of the depth chart makes playing time for Mends all the more difficult to find. He's still about 20 pounds light to play linebacker, as it is, and we'd expect him to make his move next season.
Angelo Garbutt (#22, Freshman, 6'2, 210 lbs., Hebron HS (Carrollton, Tex.))
Garbutt's story is a bit weird: He was originally an Oregon State commit when now-Nebraska coach Mike Riley was there. When Riley went to Nebraska, he offered Garbutt, and everyone assumed that he would move to Lincoln. And then he went for a recruiting visit, and before you knew what had happened, Garbutt had committed to Iowa and Nebraska's coaches were telling anyone who would listen how he had abruptly left.
This weekend, I got an email -- I kid you not -- from Garbutt's mom, Toshika Robinson, saying that they did not leave Lincoln early, and that there was no incident with Nebraska. All of this, she said, was just due to the fact that Riley's staff "misrepresented and misreported information about that weekend." So it's good to see that Mikey Smiles is getting along well with others already. It's like Bo Pelini is still there.
Anyway, Garbutt probably redshirts or gets some time on special teams. I just wanted to get that out there for Ms. Robinson. Hope that fixes things, ma'am.
Justin Jinning (#21, Freshman, 6'2, 210 lbs., The Colony (Tex.) HS)
LeVar Woods went a bit crazy on Texas linebacker recruits this year. Jinning doesn't have the pedigree or offer sheet of Garbutt, which means he'll probably be starting next year. For now, with the depth chart a crowded mess of underclassmen, it's special teams duty at best.
Jack Hockaday (#48, Freshman, 6'1, 215 lbs., Maroa-Forsyth HS (Forsyth, Ill.))
Between Niemann and Hockaday, Iowa is going into the Illinois small-school deep cuts in a way that was previously reserved for Iowa and eastern Nebraska. If your basic belief is that competition in the usual suburban private school recruits is too steep, that could make some sense in a Moneyball-ish way. It's working in Nebraska and Iowa, so why the hell not?