IOWA CITY, Iowa — Pat Fitzgerald plopped down next to Kirk Ferentz at Big Ten Media Days. Iowa highlights flashed across a nearby television screen. It was a steady stream of linebacker Josey Jewell crushing ball carriers.
The two men discussed the Iowa senior and it led Fitzgerald, a former All-American linebacker, to a revelation.
“I called him a generational linebacker,” Fitzgerald, the Northwestern coach, recalled saying back in July. “He could have played today. He could have played 50 years ago.”
Jewell’s physicality is the reason why. He plays the game in a bruising, punishing way that transcends time. It’s one of Jewell’s best traits and why he is nearly a consensus midseason All-American.
This is about as big of a compliment as Fitzgerald can bestow on a linebacker. Jewell, though, appears to want nothing to do with it.
‘He just hits hard’
As a freshman, tight end Noah Fant dreaded one part of practice. Going over the middle against Jewell.
Each route lasted only a few seconds, but it was the equivalent of going a few rounds in a boxing match because of the shots Jewell delivered on underneath routes.
“It doesn’t feel good,” Fant said. “He is a bigger dude and he packs some punch to his hits. It’s good for him.”
And worse for ball carriers when he gets more than his hands involved in the tackle.
“He is just a beast,” defensive tackle Matt Nelson said. “He just hits hard. You throw pads on him and he just turns into a whole other animal. He is a missile essentially towards the ball.”
There are many reasons why Jewell has transformed from an under-the-radar recruit to a fourth-team All-American and Butkus Award finalist last season.
His work ethic is off the charts. So are his focus and determination. His football IQ exceeds that of most Big Ten linebackers, and he makes big plays when Iowa needs them.
Those don’t draw Fitzgerald toward Jewell. It’s not why he makes a lasting impression with Big Ten opponents either.
“He just plays hard and flies to the football,” Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann said. “He is relentless with his body. He’ll throw it wherever it needs to be thrown. It’s definitely a good identity to have.”
For the Hawkeyes, there is a tangible benefit to Jewell’s play. Iowa wants to be a physical defense. Jewell ensures it happens. Teammates say his play forces them to be more physical, which lets them accomplish their goal of wearing down opponents and asserting their dominance in a game.
“If you smack a ball carrier early and often, it helps us later as a defense because they don’t want to run the ball or are timid or things like that,” Niemann said. “If you smack people often and continuously I guess it’s human nature to want to back down at times. That is kind of what we hope for.”
Digging into Josey Jewell’s response
The Fitzgerald comments aren’t new. Jewell hears something similar every so often.
He doesn’t see it as anything special. It’s more a necessity to his game.
“A couple of years probably ago, high school, I heard it then too,” Jewell said. “Probably because I wasn’t the fastest guy in the world. I don’t know if the speed of the game has increased or what. I think they say it because I’m pretty slow.”
A compliment turns into a discussion about Jewell’s athleticism and quickness. He’s wired to deflect attention, but his athleticism is a sore subject.
It held him back from receiving Division I offers as a high school senior. Iowa didn’t offer a scholarship until all other options were exhausted at the end of the recruiting process. Northern Iowa showed interest, but Jewell said the Panthers extended a limited financial aid package. Without the Iowa offer, Jewell figures he would have played at Luther College, a Division III program.
Jewell focuses on what he must improve, not what his strengths are. For multiple years, his speed was his biggest issue with prospective college coaches. It’s as if he views someone bringing up his physicality as a backhanded compliment because it’s a nice thing to say to a slower player.
Niemann isn’t sure if this is the case.
“I feel like he is a humble guy, honestly, and he isn’t going to brag too much on himself,” Niemann said. “He definitely prides himself on being a physical player.”
But, still, Jewell frowns when the conversation initially turns to Fitzgerald’s admiration of his aggressive nature.
“I tried to be physical when I was younger,” Jewell said. “I wasn’t the fastest kid.”
Fitting in across the decades
Football, more and more, is becoming a game played in space. Offenses spread teams out and try to exploit mismatches in the open field. The game is less about running over and through people than it was when Ferentz played at Connecticut in the 1970s.
“It’s unusual when you see a guy go tackle somebody,” the Iowa coach said. “It doesn’t happen a lot [anymore] where guys do it consistently, and he’s got that ability.”
And it stands out when Jewell runs through a fullback or guard on his way to making a tackle in the backfield. Jewell’s ability to take plays head on is a little unique in 21st century football.
As a result, Fitzgerald gravitates toward his highlights.
“He is a real physical player and he is a really good athlete,” Fitzgerald said. “There is no doubt that jumps off tape.
“Just his physicality where you see some linebackers running around blocks and never taking anything on and slipping anything. He has the ability to do that, but when he has to go to the ‘B’ gap or has to take on a block that is probably what stands out to me.”
That’s the central reason why Fitzgerald calls Jewell a generational player, one capable of playing in any era.
Football used to be more physical than it is today. That was the case when Fitzgerald played at Northwestern in the 1990s. It certainly was so during the “3 yards and a cloud of dust” era in the 1970s. The game was more violent when Dick Butkus clotheslined ball carriers in the 1960s.
It wouldn’t be a problem for Jewell. Not with what Fitzgerald sees on film.
“The physicality of the way the game used to be played when it was iso and power, iso and power and hey, by the way we are going to run iso and power again to where it is now as you have to play sideline to sideline and the athleticism [required to do so],” Fitzgerald said. “That he has.”
One for the ages
Jewell doesn’t know too much about his Fitzgerald’s playing career, but he realizes the gravitas associated with his words.
“That is awesome,” Jewell said. “That is a cool compliment, but you are going to have to keep on playing like that if you want to be like that.”
Still, he’s not comfortable with it. He qualifies his comments with the need to keep performing well. There is truth in it. Just like there’s truth in the fact he works best with slights or criticism.
He is always quick to brush off compliments, but this one can’t shake. He’ll need to learn to live with it. It’s not going away any time soon.
“He is right up there in the long lineage of great linebackers that have been in this conference,” Fitzgerald said. “I am really impressed with the way that he has played, and I think he is a guy that is going to play the game for a long time.”