IOWA CITY, Iowa — Three practices in the post-Josey Jewell world for the Iowa linebackers, and Kristian Welch has emerged as a contender to replace Jewell at middle linebacker.
Expecting Welch to have the same impact as one of the program’s greatest players is naive. But somebody has to play the position, and Welch’s name comes up first on the depth chart this spring.
It’s not unexpected, however. Welch, now a junior, was Jewell’s backup last fall. Welch played on most special teams units and saw significant time at middle linebacker in the regular-season finale against Nebraska. Welch even picked off a pass and returned it 33 yards as part of Iowa’s 56-14 victory.
Originally, Welch (6-foot-3, 238 pounds) was placed at outside linebacker behind departing senior Ben Niemann. Welch wasn’t redshirted as a freshman in 2016 and saw action both on defense and special teams. Then in the spring of 2017, Welch shifted inside, where he since has played.
“I worked outside my first camp my freshman year,” Welch said. “I think I did some good things and learned a lot about the coverages when you’re detached from the box. Then I just moved back inside and I embraced whatever they’re going to say. But in that sense, it gave me confidence that I could play both, but I’ve been inside ever since. I think I have the physicality and what it takes to play inside and speed and things like that.”
Welch was an afterthought on the recruiting trail. He hails from Iola, Wis., which is located about 90 miles west of Green Bay and two hours north of Madison. Linebackers coach Seth Wallace described in detail the treacherous journey across frozen roads in which to meet with Welch during the recruiting period. Welch’s only other serious offer was from North Dakota State offensive coordinator Tim Polasek, who now is Iowa’s offensive line coach.
“Kristian was a I-AA kid,” Wallace said. “I know that doesn’t get much publicity around here. He did fit with who we were. He’s still here. He’s done well. He’s played on special teams, and now it’s his opportunity. It’s a blank canvas for him to start painting his own picture.”
The competition is fierce for Welch, who had 6 tackles last year. Competing with him in the middle are senior Jack Hockaday (6-1, 235) and junior Amani Jones (6-0, 238). Senior Aaron Mends (6-0, 228) also works at weakside linebacker, and all four are fighting for two starting roles.
“It’s every day, every snap,” Welch said. “We’re competing every single play, every chance we get. It’s intense. We respect each other, it’s nothing like bad competition by any means. But it’s intense every day. I’m excited to improve on my own things and whoever’s lined up next to me, the Will, the Mike, whoever, we’re just trying to improve. It’s going to come right down to the wire.”