IOWA CITY, Iowa — Ben Niemann fought through multiple ailments and injuries throughout his 2016 season.
The senior Iowa outside linebacker strained a leg muscle in training camp and sustained a shoulder/back injury early in the season. He struggled to regain his standard of play until the regular season’s final few weeks. Then, Niemann put together one of his best games with the Hawkeyes.
Niemann recorded 6 tackles, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry in the Hawkeyes’ 14-13 upset over previously unbeaten Michigan. It was an impressive overall performance by the defense, and Niemann was instrumental in the victory.
“I’ve said it in our closed doors, he probably hit his stride during the Michigan week,” Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace said. “That’s where you really noticed him. I think his level of play increased at that point in the season, and it’s unfortunate because it did take him a little bit to get settled in for whatever reason. He went through a shoulder injury last year, had a hamstring at the beginning of the year.”
Niemann gutted out the season and didn’t miss any games. He finished fourth on the team in tackles with 69 and recorded an interception. He now has started 27 consecutive games at one of the most difficult positions in Iowa’s defense.
The outside linebacker operates as a linebacker/safety hybrid, where Niemann often walks outside the box and covers slot receivers and tight ends. But run responsibility also is crucial. Niemann, a former high school wide receiver, stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 233 pounds, so he has a frame to stop enemy ball carriers but is nimble enough to cover quicker athletes in space.
“We choose to stay in a three-linebacker set more often than not,” Wallace said. “There are other teams that on first and second down, they’ll throw a nickel out there. We’re a little bit different, so there is a little more stress on that position fundamentally, athletically for that matter, with the matchups that he’s being faced with out on the perimeter.”
Despite his ailments, Niemann took only two weeks off from training this offseason. He was ready to go for Iowa’s primary growth period in the weight room from late January through March and gained 5 pounds.
“Once I got back from the break — we had about two weeks [off] — so once I got back, I was full go,” Niemann said. “I had a little window.
“Obviously, I just want to improve. In the Florida game I missed open-field tackles. Just playing better in space. Playing better on blocks, taking blocks on better. My leadership as well; just trying to lead the young guys on the defense.”
All three of Iowa’s starting linebackers are seniors. That has led to fewer reps for Niemann, middle linebacker Josey Jewell and weakside linebacker Bo Bower this spring. As much as the starters need to improve before the season, the Hawkeyes need to develop younger linebackers to replace them in 2018. That led to fewer snaps in practice this spring.
“A lot of the younger guys have been getting more reps and we’re just trying to coach them, but I definitely feel like I’ve progressed,” Niemann said.