IOWA CITY, Iowa — As Iowa football transitions from offseason building mode into spring practice this week, urgency heightens for several players shifting from underclassman to upperclassman status.
As sophomores in 2017, many of those players were behind multiyear starters with little opportunity for upward mobility. Now with many of those players graduating, positions are open this spring. As juniors, they’ll have first crack at those spots. However, if they get passed up, the chances to start are limited.
So entering the spring, here are five (plus one) juniors who need to seize the opportunity for playing time.
Amani Jones, linebacker
In August 2016, Amani Jones stepped into his first training camp and competed right away for the open weakside linebacker spot. The coaching staff took the decision down to the final week before settling on veteran Bo Bower. Jones saw plenty of action on special teams the last two seasons. Now with both Bower and middle linebacker Josey Jewell graduating, Jones has a chance to slide into one of those spots.
Jones (6-foot, 238) was a member of the valued Leadership Group in 2017 and has 6 career tackles. He carries a massive frame and an engaging personality, which should translate to an on-field role. But there’s plenty of competition for those openings, with two seniors and a fellow junior in a similar position. Expect Jones to battle fiercely for those spots this spring.
Kristian Welch, linebacker
Like Jones, Kristian Welch played on special teams without redshirting in 2016. Welch (6-3, 238) began his career at outside linebacker but shifted inside to become Jewell’s backup at middle linebacker last year. Welch will compete at both the middle and weakside openings.
Welch has 9 career tackles and saw extensive time at middle linebacker during Iowa’s 56-14 win at Nebraska last year. Welch had 3 tackles and also intercepted a pass, which he returned 33 yards. Iowa’s competition at one of the two inside linebacker spots includes Jones, Welch and seniors Jack Hockaday and Aaron Mends. Those four figure to battle well past the spring, summer, throughout training camp and perhaps into September.
Drew Cook, tight end
One year ago, Drew Cook still was a quarterback, but speculation always swirled he would switch to tight end. His father, Marv, was an All-America tight end at Iowa in 1988 and later was an All-Pro with the New England Patriots. Drew Cook led Iowa City Regina to four state titles as a high school quarterback but was relegated to no higher than fourth team throughout his Iowa career. So last spring, Cook switched to tight end.
Cook (6-5, 250) has gained 15 pounds this offseason but faces an uphill climb to see the field. Iowa’s two primary tight ends in junior Noah Fant and sophomore T.J. Hockenson both return, and sophomore Shaun Beyer elevated his role during bowl preparation. But if Cook proves capable of playing this year, Iowa will find a way to get him on the field — even as the fourth tight end.
Devonte Young, wide receiver
This spring is Devonte Young’s last, best chance to see action at wide receiver. He was one of two scholarship holdovers who fully participated in spring practice last year, but it didn’t translate to action last fall at wide receiver. Young (6-0, 203) played 10 games on special teams and recovered a whiffed punt in the season opener against Wyoming.
— Tom Dyer (@tdyer1958) September 2, 2017
With three freshmen seeing action at wide receiver last fall and perhaps four incoming wide receivers competing for snaps this August, this is Young’s last shot at playing time. He’d better make it count.
Paulsen brothers (Levi and Landan), offensive line
Few players are as celebrated for their eccentricity quite like the Paulsen twins. They’ve been compared with the Hanson brothers from the movie Slap Shot, had teammates tell the world they’d win Dancing With The Stars and showcased their personalities at every opportunity. But as both enter their junior seasons at Iowa, they need to earn starting roles.
Both players have seen action along the offensive line the last two seasons. In 2016, Levi Paulsen started at right guard at Illinois as a freshman. He also opened the recent Pinstripe Bowl at right tackle. Landan Paulsen has played in two games for Iowa. They both stand 6-5 and weigh 305 pounds. They both approach an offseason where the Hawkeyes lose four veteran offensive linemen and have multiple openings. It’s time for the Paulsens to step forward and grab hold of at least one of those positions.