IOWA CITY, Iowa — It was barely bright and awfully early on Iowa’s fourth practice of the spring as the linebackers worked their drills and assistant defensive coordinator Seth Wallace barked louder than any other assistant coach.
In a full-bore, 3-on-3 session featuring offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends, junior linebacker Kristian Welch lost his battle with guard Landan Paulsen, and it was decisive. That led to Wallace hollering at Welch with only three words worth quoting — “I don’t care.”
On the next play, Welch attacked tackle Mark Kallenberger, but the hard-hitting battle resulted in a stalemate. One play later, Welch produced his own victory against Kallenberger.
In that intense drill, Welch — and his fellow linebackers — showed their strengths and weaknesses so far this spring. None of them have the instincts Josey Jewell displayed the last four years, but few other linebackers in school history have, either. But the effort was there as was the physicality.
“I think the strengths overall at the linebacker position is that these guys are eager,” said Wallace, who coaches the linebackers. “That is the most noticeable thing. Whether you walk down the hallways with them or walk with them down to the field, or in practice, the one thing that is most noticeable is that these guys are eager and ready to go.”
The depth chart now consists of names on a piece of paper. Jewell, a unanimous first-team All-American last year, will know his NFL destination in a few weeks. The same with Ben Niemann and Bo Bower. They combined for 122 starts the last four seasons, and the returnees have a total of zero starts.
Welch’s name (6-foot-3, 238 pounds) is listed first at middle linebacker (mike) but it doesn’t mean he’s landed the position. He’s in a fierce competition with senior Jack Hockaday (6-1, 235) and junior Amani Jones (6-0, 238). At weak side linebacker (will), Jones and senior Aaron Mends (6-0, 228) are battling each other, plus Hockaday and Welch.
On the outside, sophomores Nick Niemann (6-4, 232) and Barrington Wade (6-1, 233) are scrapping to replace Ben Niemann. With 23 days remaining in spring football, it’s an all-out competition at every second-level position.
“They’re ready to go and they’re ready to find a way,” Wallace said. “It may not be just three guys like it’s been for the last couple of years. It may be more like the defensive line where there’s a rotation.”
All of the interior linebackers have competed on special teams. Hockaday replaced Jewell in the 2016 opener after the stalwart was ejected for targeting. Welch played much of the second half against Nebraska last year and returned an interception 33 yards. Mends originally was supposed to start at will in 2016, but Bower beat him out. Jones has turned heads with his hard hits.
“Amani is very explosive, very fast, very quick in small space for sure,” Welch said. “He’s a playmaker, and he’s a really good guy. He’s quick in a small space. He kind of has that ‘cat twitch’ as coach Wallace calls it.”
Nick Niemann has the pedigree to replace his brother, who started 40 games the last three seasons. In fact, Nick Niemann is taller, nearly as heavy and perhaps faster than Ben Niemann.
“He’s a good athlete,” Ben Niemann said of his younger brother. “Some of his testing times are better than what I tested at here, and he’s only a redshirt sophomore. I think he has potential but he knows this and so does everybody else: Everybody is fighting for a job still and it’s not his yet. He’s got to go out and earn that. All of those guys are working hard and competing with each other. I think the best one will come out on top, but I wish him the best.”
There also is opportunity for others to advance on the depth chart. Junior-college transfers Nick Anderson (6-2, 225) and Colton Dinsdale (5-11, 215), sophomore Kyle Taylor (5-11, 228), freshmen Nate Wieland (6-1, 223) and Djimon Colbert (6-1, 234), and recent enrollee Dillon Doyle (6-3, 227) could battle for snaps. Newcomers such as Jayden McDonald (6-1, 220), Logan Klemp (6-3, 210) and Seth Benson (6-1, 205) could compete on special teams.
It’s too early to start separating the players into a solid depth chart, but the tiers are obvious with Welch, Mends, Jones and Hockaday battling for the inside spots with Niemann and Wade competing on the outside. Wallace’s goal is for everything to click by late August.
“I would hate to set a timetable on it,” Wallace said. “We have a scrimmage set for this weekend, and we will have one most Saturdays until the end of spring. I think when you start getting into those type of situations, you start to get a better idea. There’s so much ahead for these guys. That’s not to say that they are far behind. It’s just lack of time on the field and lack of communication for one. They haven’t been out there and heard it as much.”