IOWA CITY – Questions are swirling all around the Iowa football team this year.
Who will be the starting quarterback? How will Akrum Wadley gel with James Butler? Which receiver will step up and lead the passing attack? Which newcomer in the secondary makes the biggest impact?
Intriguing questions? Yes. But if you’re looking for drama and position battles, this article probably isn’t for you.
This article is for the Hawk fans that are getting a little anxious as the season approaches. These fans are looking for something they know they can trust. These fans want to know about the position group with the fewest question marks.
That position group is the linebackers.
Ben Niemann, Bo Bower, and Josey Jewell are each returning for their senior campaign. Together, they form the most experienced and smart group of players on the roster. Over the past three seasons, the three have combined to start 84 games for the Hawkeyes.
“I can’t remember the last time we had four seniors in the group, with the three starters plus Kevin Ward,” said Head Coach Kirk Ferentz in the 2017 Iowa Hawkeye football Media Guide.
The anchor of the group is Jewell, the 6’2, 236-lb Decorah native who spent each of the last two seasons as a team captain, the only sophomore to ever be named a captain under Ferentz.
“The Outlaw” enters the season having started 31 consecutive games at middle linebacker. In 2016, he was second in the Big Ten with 124 total tackles. He also had a sack, six tackles for loss (15 yards), and nine pass break ups.
These numbers did not go unnoticed. Jewel was named second team All-Big Ten and was one of five finalists for the Butkus Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top linebacker. He is on the 2017 Butkus Award preseason watch list as well.
Niemann enters 2017 with 27 consecutive starts at the outside linebacker position. Last year, his 69 total tackles ranked fourth on the team while he added three tackles for loss (three yards), five pass break ups, and an interception.
At weakside linebacker is Bower, a former walk-on from West Branch. Bower has seen action in every game over the past three seasons, but has not enjoyed the same steady success as Jewell and Niemann.
Bower started every game in 2014, but sat behind senior Cole Fisher in 2015. Despite seeing action in every game, his numbers declined that season
In 2016, he returned to his starting role and showed everyone that he had no intentions of giving up his spot on the depth chart. He was second on the team with 91 tackles, 44 of which were solo. He added four pass break ups and a forced fumble.
Together, the three starting seniors leave no question marks. They’ve proven they can play well together, and it would be wrong to expect anything less from the senior trio in their final season.
Of course, we must always expect the unexpected. If one of them goes down, who must rise up?
Behind Jewell at middle linebacker is Jack Hockaday. Hockaday, a 6’1, 232-lb junior, saw action in every game a season ago. He played nearly the entire game in the opener against Miami (OH) after Jewell was ejected for targeting. He recorded three solo tackles, three assists, a pass break up and a forced fumble while filling in for the Outlaw.
Kevin Ward, a senior, is listed behind Niemann, while sophomore Amani Jones and junior Aaron Mends fall in behind Bower. Each player saw considerable action a year ago, although Ward’s was primarily on special teams.
While not as battle tested as the three starting seniors, the second wave of guys is not new to the system by any means. They have three linebackers in front of them that they can learn from for one more year before it is their turn to take the defensive reigns. Right now, they are a strong group of backups that will perform better than the term “backups” might suggest.
In 2017, Iowa fans couldn’t want more from a linebacker core. Three seniors, all with considerable experience, all that will certainly want to go out on a good note. If you’re looking for holes or questions marks, I suggest you look some place else.