POSITIONAL AWARENESS 2018: HAWKEYES HAVE A BLANK SLATE AT LINEBACKER

By Mike Jones on August 8, 2018 at 1:00 pm
Aaron Mends, still playing football for the University of Iowa!

The current linebackers on Iowa's roster have played so little that the only picture we could find was of Aaron Mends. Seriously (© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

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Positional Awareness is our annual rundown of the Iowa depth chart, from the position where we are most confident in what Kirk Ferentz intends to do to, well, running back.

Previously on Positional Awareness:

  1. Quarterback
  2. Tight End
  3. Defensive End
  4. Defensive Tackle
  5. Wide Receiver
  6. Safety
  7. Cornerback
  8. Offensive Line
  9. Special Teams
Eligibility Remaining    
No. Player Year Ht/Wt. Position 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
31 Aaron Mends SR 6-0/228 Weak-side Linebacker          
48 Jack Hockaday SR 6-1/235 Middle Linebacker #2          
34 Kristian Welch JR 6-3/238 Weak-side Linebacker #1          
47 Nick Anderson JR 6-2/225 Linebacker          
52 Amani Jones JR 6-0/238 Middle Linebacker #1          
49 Nick Niemann SO 6-4/232 Outside Linebacker #1          
35 Barrington Wade SO 6-1/233 Outside Linebacker #2          
32 Djimon Colbert FR(FS) 6-2/234 Weak-side Linebacker #2          
45 Ben Campos FR(RS) 6-1/225 Linebacker          
43 Dillon Doyle FR 6-3/227 Linebacker          
  Seth Benson FR 6-1/205 Linebacker          
  Joe Evans FR 6-2/210 Linebacker          
  Logan Klemp FR 6-3/210 Linebacker          
  Jayden McDonald FR 6-1/220 Linebacker          
  Mitch Riggs FR 6-1/230 Linebacker          
  Mike Timm FR 6-1/220 Linebacker          

Linebacker went from being the first Positional Awareness in 2017 to the penultimate in 2018, which is what you would expect after losing three senior starters in Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann, and Bo Bower. The Jewell loss stings the most, as he was a permanent team captain on defense and winner of the Jack Lambert Award and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (among other honors). Jewell started 43 games over the course of his Iowa career. The combined starts of the current starters on Iowa’s depth chart heading into 2018? Zero. These guys have some big shoes to fill.

Starters Without Clever/Awful Nicknames

OLB #1: NICK NIEMANN (#49, Sophomore, 6’4, 232 lbs, Sycamore, Sycamore, IL)

A Niemann for all ages, it seems, as Ben’s younger brother Nick takes over at outside linebacker. Unlike Ben, who was a 2-star recruit with minimal offers from Group of Five schools, Nick was a 3-star recruit who had offers from Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, a number of G5 schools, and Iowa State. Nick played both linebacker and tight end in high school and was named to first-team all-state and all-conference as a senior. He redshirted his freshman season at Iowa and saw action in 13 games last season, primarily on special teams.

Now, we haven’t seen much of Niemann, but he’s supposedly faster and taller than his brother. I say “supposedly” taller than his brother because every school lies about the size of their players on their website. To be an effective outside linebacker you have to look good in zone coverage and not give up the edge. If Niemann is as coachable, fundamentally sound and athletic as he’s billed to be, his first season should be a respectable one.

Fun fact: Niemann was born in Waterloo, when his father, Jay, was coaching at UNI.

MLB #1: AMANI JONES (#52, Junior, 6’0, 238 lbs, Phillips, Chicago, IL)

Amani Jones went from Iowa’s backup weak-side linebacker to Iowa’s starting middle linebacker over the course of about five months. That’s quite the development. How did we end up with Jones at linebacker? Let’s start with how he got here. Jones was a 3-star recruit with offers from Illinois, Indiana and a number of other G5 schools. He didn’t redshirt, which is always telling, and played in 13 games as a true freshman, primarily on special teams.  It was the same story last season when he was named to the 2017 Leadership Group and given the Team Hustle Award for defense.

Entering the spring, he was Iowa’s backup weak-side linebacker behind Aaron Mends, while Kristian Welch held down the starting position in the middle. But, by the time the spring game rolled around, Jones had supplanted Welch on the depth chart and was Iowa’s starter at middle linebacker. His performance during the spring game was even more impressive, as he stuffed run play after run play and took control of the defense.

What really jumps off the page about Jones is that he’s 6’0, 238 pounds. He’s a brick shithouse with a low center of gravity that has a reputation for hitting hard. He even broke the squat record once held by Aaron Mends, by squatting 625 pounds. Perhaps the most important aspect of his game is that he understands that there’s no star at linebacker anymore, so it’s the unit that has to come together:

"We haven’t played that many snaps. So it all has to be one unit. If I feel like I can’t make the tackle, I know I have to put my trust in Kristian Welch or Nick Niemann. They can come and make the tackle for me. I need to shed a block, they can be right there in the hole…

We really take pride in the unit. … There’s no more looking for answers in one guy anymore."

Amani’s ascension from backup to starter at a completely different position is something to note. Especially when whoever holds that position is often the de-facto captain of the defense. Jones can hit hard and has the strength to be a middle linebacker in the Big Ten, but we know it’s a lot more than just physical tools. His maturity in understanding that the sum is greater than the parts is encouraging, and we’re hopeful that he’ll be a worthy successor to Josey Jewell.

WLB #1: KRISTIAN WELCH (#34, Junior, 6’3, 238 lbs, Iola-Scandinavia, Iola, WI)

This spring, the plan was for Welch to succeed Josey Jewell at middle linebacker. After all, he was Jewell’s backup and saw a solid amount of playing time in the blowout win over Nebraska. Unfortunately for Welch, that plan fell apart when Amani Jones started playing lights out and it looked like Kristian might not make the starting depth chart. Then, Aaron Mends tore his ACL, so Welch moved back to the position where he’d his freshman season: the outside.

A 3-star recruit with only one FBS offer to his name, Welch played football in small-town Wisconsin and in high school he earned all-state and all-region honors as a senior, was a first-team all-conference linebacker and running back as a junior and senior, and was also a track star. Really!

Like Jones, Welch is big on talking about the linebackers as a unit, not just one person:

“We’re not an individual person...We’re a unit and I’d rather it be that way. I’d rather have it be three guys who are going to bust their tails and just work hard every single snap. I’d rather have it be like that.”

What do we know about Welch as a player? Well, he’s spent the majority of his time at special teams, so we haven’t seen a lot. He did pick off Tanner Lee last year but hey, who didn’t pick off Tanner Lee last year? Despite being 6’3, 238 pounds, Welch purportedly still has impressive speed, so he’s a perfect candidate for Iowa’s starting weak-side linebacker. Let’s hope it works out.

While You Wait for the Others

MLB #2: JACK HOCKADAY (#48, Senior, 6’1, 235 lbs, Maroa-Forsyth, Forsyth, IL)

When Hockaday didn’t redshirt as a true freshman, I thought I saw the writing on the wall. When he played all 13 games in 2016 and was listed as Jewell’s backup at middle linebacker, it only solidified my thought that one day, he’d be Josey’s replacement. But then, something happened. Early in 2017, he suffered an undisclosed injury, forcing him to miss most of the spring. In 2017 he only saw action in seven games, missing the final two games of the regular season due to illness. I suspect that this undisclosed injury might’ve been ongoing.

With Josey’s graduation, it looked like Hockaday might finally get his shot…but instead, it was Welch. And now, this fall, it’s Amani Jones. Hockaday has significant experience at linebacker, possibly more than any starter on the roster, but the guys in front of him are just playing better. I’ll continue to believe that should Jones, or maybe even Welch, falter, then Hockaday will be first off the bench to help.  

OLB #2: BARRINGTON WADE (#35, Sophomore, 6’1, 233 lbs, Niles North, Skokie, IL)

WLB #2: DJIMON COLBERT (#32, Redshirt Freshman, 6'1, 234 lbs, Bishop Miege, Shawnee Mission, KS)

Grouping Wade and Colbert here as they have the same amount of experience: zero. Wade was a 3-star running back with a number of MAC offers, who redshirted his freshman season. As a redshirt freshman he saw... no action. Colbert was a 3-star safety/cornerback recruit with offers from Nebraska, Iowa State and Kansas. He made the switch to weak-side linebacker, redshirted and now he's Iowa's #2 weak-side linebacker. We don't know what to expect out of either player but considering we're dealing with a former running back and safety/cornerback, it seems fair to assume they're pretty athletic. 

WLB: AARON MENDS (#31, Senior, 6’0, 228 lbs, Winnetonka, Kansas  City, MO)

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

This was supposed to be the year. Mends has been called a physical freak. A phenom weightlifter. Iowa's next star linebacker. He's gone from Iowa's next big thing to completely absent from the depth chart. He went from nowhere to be seen to doing this in the Outback Bowl:

Finally, this spring, he was Iowa's starter at weak-side linebacker and his attitude about not getting the chance to start until his senior season was something to behold:

"I knew it was going to be difficult coming here. That’s what I wanted. I don’t think it would be right if I wasn’t fighting my senior year...

Pat Angerer didn’t have a straight shot to the top. Anthony Hitchens didn’t have it smooth...Guys like that, if you keep going, you’ll make it."

We were all about Aaron Mends finally breaking through. And then...it happened: Aaron Mends tore his ACL

/sob

So much hope and promise were dashed, just like that. Mends already redshirted his freshman year, so absent an NCAA waiver, his career is over. The good news is that he didn't play in any games this season (unlike when Drew Ott appealed), so if he's going to appeal, there's a chance he gets it. We sure hope he does, because he deserves a lot better.

NICK ANDERSON (#47, Junior, 6'2, 225 lbs, Waukee, Waukee, IA)

A former Iowa Western Community College Reiver that walked-on along with Colton Dinsdale, Anderson earned all-conference honors in the Iowa Community College Athletic Association. The most interesting part about Anderson is the story he told Land of 10 regarding his recruitment. Apparently, while a senior at Waukee, he was recruited by Matt Campbell and Iowa State. Something went sour, and Anderson won't elaborate as to what exactly happened, but he will say "Ever since then I’ve had a hatred for them."

Good. Good...Let the hate flow through you, Nick Anderson. 

They Were Only Freshmen

DILLON DOYLE (#43, Freshman, 6'3, 227 lbs, West, Iowa City, IA)

BEN CAMPOS (#45, Redshirt Freshman, 6'1, 225 lbs, Valley, Des Moines, IA)

SETH BENSON (#44, Freshman, 6'1, 205 lbs, Washington, Sioux Falls, SD)

JOE EVANS (#13, Freshman, 6'2, 210 lbs, Ames, Ames, IA)

LOGAN KLEMP (#46, Freshman, 6'3, 210 lbs, South Hamilton, Jewell, IA)

JAYDEN MCDONALD (#25, Freshman, 6'1, 220 lbs, North Gwinnett, Suwanee, GA)

MITCH RIGGS (#36, Freshman, 6'1, 230 lbs, Dowling, West Des Moines, IA)

MIKE TIMM (#19, Freshman, 6'1, 220 lbs, Kettle Moraine, Delafield, WI)

This…this is a lot of freshmen.

Campos, Evans and Riggs are all local kids who decided to walk-on. Timm, a native of Delafield, Wisconsin, had a number of FCS offers but accepted a preferred walk-on opportunity with the Hawkeyes. Doyle, Benson and Klemp were lightly recruited players, Doyle being the only one with offers from FBS schools. But hey, this is Chris Doyle’s son we’re talking about. Was he really going somewhere else?

Then there’s Jayden McDonald, who sticks out because it’s not every day Iowa gets a highly touted linebacker from Georgia. A graduate of North Gwinnett High School, a Class 7A school (largest class in GA) and defending state champion, McDonald had a long list of suitors including Cincinnati, UConn, Kansas State, Ole Miss, Purdue and Rutgers. He actually committed to Rutgers originally, backed out, looked like he might sign with Ole Miss, and then decided on Iowa. We’re thankful he did.

The Hawkeyes have perfect balance on the depth chart, with three upperclassmen and three underclassmen. With the new redshirt rules, it’s probable that we’ll see a majority of these guys in 2018, especially McDonald. 

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