Spring Outlook: Versatility Name of Game at Linebacker

April 8, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa’s linebacker position is evolving. The Hawkeyes are adjusting, keeping up with the increasing number of wide-open offenses.

They test-drove some new ideas at this time a year ago. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker spoke about formations that strayed from the long-standing, 4-3 base.

When the season kicked off the campaign, however, Iowa stuck with what it did during the first 19 years under head coach Kirk Ferentz. After winning its first three games, it dropped the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium. The Badgers’ decisive score came with a linebacker covering a receiver, re-opening old wounds for Hawkeye fans.

A couple of factors converged and fostered change after that. LEO linebacker Nick Niemann suffered an injury against Wisconsin, hampering an already inexperienced position group. With a bye week, Parker and his staff returned to the offseason idea of bringing safety Amani Hooker down into the box.

The “Cash” position was born.

Hooker, who declared for the NFL in January, brought an unusually versatile skill set to the field. The 4-2-5 alignment succeeded with his unique ability to cover and support the run well.

Ferentz and linebacker coach Seth Wallace indicate that the look is now a main part of the defense. There’s also a 4-2-5 grouping with an extra cornerback called a “Star.” The staff also is toying with a 3-4 front, placing linebacker Amani Jones on the edge.

The times, they are a changing.

The defense at its best always has been connected with communication throughout the three levels. The changes have created more melding of positions.

As a result, linebacker will look different than it has the last few decades. The LEO and Cash will be interchangeable depending on the offense being faced. The Mike and WIL spots will feature speed and athleticism.

Iowa started five different combinations of players at linebacker last year. Besides Hooker and Jack Hockaday, they all returned for the 2019 season.

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“It gave us a chance to build a foundation,” Wallace said.

Djimon Colbert (6-1, 235) started 10 games at the WIL as a freshman last fall. Kristian Welch (6-3, 239, Sr.) started three games at WIL and three at Mike. Niemann (6-4, 235, Jr.) opened five contests as LEO.

That trio entered spring listed as the starters. Barrington Wade (6-1, 236, Jr.), Dillon Doyle (6-3, 233, RS Fr.) and Jones (5-11, 242, Sr.) showed up as No. 2s. They and Seth Benson (6-1, 225, RS Fr.) saw special teams’ duty in ’18.

Welch and Niemann can play all three linebacker positions. That bodes well for them getting on the field. That said, with “Cash” being a thing, it reduces reps for the group as a whole.

Of course, Wallace and Parker are searching for someone to replace Hooker as the hybrid. Senior Michael Ojemudia (6-1, 200) and D.J. Johnson (5-10, 183, RS. Fr.), cornerbacks by trade, are leading the way at Cash this spring.

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“There are guys that we have that can go out and fill that role. They’re going to look a little bit different than Amani Hooker (5-11, 210),” Wallace said.

Hooker enjoyed an advantage of seeing what was going on in the box from his safety position before the move. While the new Cash won’t boast that experience, it’s been decided that the alignment is here to stay.

“It’s who we are. It’s our DNA moving forward. We had success with it. It was good for us and we’re going to continue to use it,” Wallace said.

“It took a very impactful play in that Wisconsin game that really made us make the decision that this is what we’re going to do moving forward.”

The change affects a roster built in recruiting to fill three traditional linebacker spots. So far, defensive backs are being identified for Cash.

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“Now we’re into this different personnel that fits about 80 percent on what we see on average, at least it did last year. So the other 20 percent is what we were recruiting for, where there’s three linebackers on the field,” Wallace said.

“So I think what you’ll find moving forward is you’ll see us less likely to take three or four linebackers in a recruiting class and maybe that extra guy going to the secondary because of how the percentages play out.”

Coaches will project in scouting future Cash possibilities. They’re looking for a combination of coverage and run support with good instincts.

For now, a deep group of linebackers is jockeying for two spots. Flexibility is key.

“Not to give you a depth chart because I couldn’t do it today, but you’ve got the combination of Welch, Colbert, Niemann, Doyle. I know I’m missing some guys, but that’s who those guys are,” Wallace said.

The spring also brings a more extensive look at younger players who spent last season on the scout team. That group includes Benson, Jayden McDonald, Logan Klemp and others. Wade is focusing on LEO.

“Their reps are significant. Their reps are not maybe as many as some of those guys in front of them that have been here a little bit longer. They’ve done a good job up to this point,” Wallace said.

Wallace hinted that some of the linebacker depth beyond Jones could be looked at on the defensive line, where numbers are low. Welch and Niemann have taken reps at end.

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