IOWA CITY, Iowa — The depth chart didn’t reflect it, but Josey Jewell lost his starting job this spring.
He wasn’t always the middle linebacker on the first-team defense, instead spending plenty of time on the sidelines as Iowa wanted to protect its Butkus Award finalist from injury and get a look at younger linebackers.
It created a unique problem for the team captain. How was Jewell supposed to improve without reps?
“There are two ways to look at it there,” Jewell said. “I can either want to get away with [not practicing as much] or I can try to learn from something else. Instead of being on the field most of the time, I can learn from being off of the field, [from] the other guys. They might do something better than me.”
He took the second option. Jewell used the spring to watch his backups and see how they could help him improve.
Watch and learn
Coming off a 124-tackle junior season, Jewell didn’t need to overhaul his skill set. He wanted to refine his speed, reaction time and pass-defense skills. He began by seeing how other linebackers succeeded during drills.
“They might be better in zone coverage and teach me something,” Jewell said. “I think the young guys have throughout this spring ball, the [middle linebacker] position, they’ve taught me small things to try to get better at my game.”
Foot stride became a focus. Too long of a step is a problem. Being too wide or too narrow is a concern. Making sure his stride is correct helps check off nearly everything on his spring practice to-do list.
“[Linebackers coach Seth Wallace] always talks about feet and eyes, what can get you in trouble, and what can help you out,” Jewell said. “I definitely think that’s something we’ve been looking at more recently. Your feet are what gets you places.”
Limiting Jewell in the spring was as much about protecting him as finding the second-team middle linebacker.
“We’re just trying to figure that out in the depth chart right now,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “I think there are guys with good athletic ability that can move — they’re tough, smart, all that stuff. But to understand the system and try to play like [the starters], they need more reps, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Following the backups
Sophomore Kristian Welch emerged at middle linebacker during the 15 spring practices. Outside linebacker Amani Jones, a sophomore, also impressed Jewell.
“They are both looking really good,” he said. “They are understanding the game.”
Iowa returns three starting senior linebackers. Each saw reps cut this spring. That began before starting safety Brandon Snyder tore his left ACL in April.
Jewell was happy to help the younger players while learning some things. But he’ll be ecstatic when he gets back onto the field full time come preseason camp. The sideline wasn’t for him.
“I don’t want to get used to it,” Jewell said.