IOWA CITY, Iowa — The last time Iowa had a team like this in a season like this, three linebackers elevated both the defense and the team to an eight-win campaign.
The Hawkeyes’ 8-5 record in 2013 perhaps didn’t showcase the type of team Iowa had. It certainly didn’t give enough due to the linebacker trio of James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Chris Kirksey. Both Hitchens and Kirksey now are four-year starters in the NFL. Injuries prevented Morris from reaching the same acclaim.
Their absences left a void that Iowa struggled to fill in 2014. Morris, Hitchens and Kirksey combined for 104 career starts. Only two returning players had starts when the trio graduated. The inexperienced unit gave up at least 511 more rushing yards in 2014 than in 2013. The replacements often were out of position and late to recognize plays develop. They gave up 18 runs of 20-plus yards, much higher than the 10 allowed in 2013.
Iowa faces a similar void for next year. Unanimous All-American Josey Jewell — the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year — started 43 games. Ben Niemann had 40 starts and Bo Bower added 39. That’s 122 career starts without anyone on the roster with even one.
For much of December during bowl preparation, defensive coordinator Phil Parker put his inexperienced linebackers in situations to find out who might replace his departing threesome. From now through August, every depth chart at linebacker is written in pencil.
“You have to get them in there and start making the decisions, especially with the guys who have to make some calls up front and talk with the defensive line or communicate with the secondary,” Parker said. “You need to make sure they can make those decisions. The older they are, the more confident they are. I think if they are undecided a little bit and they might be afraid to say something and that makes them slower football players.
“We are working on that and I think they are doing a good job. I think we have to do the same things we did back in 2013 and make sure we get those guys back in here looking at film in January and early February.”
Iowa has multiple prospects at every position, and it’s possible at least one of the slots won’t have closure until next September. Candidates to replace Jewell at middle linebacker include incoming senior Jack Hockaday (6-foot-1, 232 pounds), junior Kristian Welch (6-3, 232) and junior Amani Jones (6-0, 235). All have seen playing time on special teams. Hockaday replaced Jewell in the 2016 opener after Jewell was hit with targeting. Welch has bounced around from the outside to the inside. Jones mostly has been a backup at weakside linebacker. Both Hockaday and Jones have dealt with injuries this season.
Senior Aaron Mends (6-0, 227) could have the edge to replace Bower at weakside linebacker. Mends originally was slated to start in 2016, but Bower won a fierce three-way competition that also included Jones.
While offseason workouts and spring practice may provide some level of separation, training camp will become the ultimate proving ground. In 2014, Jewell rotated with Reggie Spearman for the first two months of play before claiming a starting spot.
“There’s no question it will go that long [into training camp],” Parker said. “We are still looking at some guys that we feel will be the best fit to replace these guys inside, at the mike, and really all three positions.
“It’s been a good month to find out who’s the guy. Right now, I couldn’t tell you.
“I think Amani Jones has done a good job the last couple of practices. He has a lot of strength and power, whether he’s going to be a mike or the will. I think that’s going to be an interesting battle there because he’s moved up in the last couple of days.”
Jewell, who has an NFL career awaiting him, has more knowledge of the current linebackers than most people, but he’s not tipping who’s on track to start.
“Whoever shows up during spring ball,” Jewell said. “It’s between a bunch of guys. You can switch a bunch of guys around. You can put Amani Jones in there, you can put Kristian in there. Jack has done a great job behind us. I think they’ve learned a lot since they’ve been here.”
At the outside spot, there’s more inexperience. Niemann started there the past three years and there’s no replacement with even modest snaps. Sophomores Nick Niemann (6-4, 225) and Barrington Wade (6-1, 233) are the likely contenders. Nick Niemann, the younger brother of Ben, has played on special teams and likely has the edge.
Others who could figure at any of the spots include redshirt freshmen Djimon Colbert (6-1, 215) and Nate Wieland (6-1, 220) or sophomore Kyle Taylor (6-0, 225).