Howe: Ranking the Top Linebackers of the Kirk Ferentz Era
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Kirk Ferentz is entering his 20th season as Iowa’s head coach. He will tie legendary Hayden Fry for the longest tenure in program history.
I thought about writing a “best-of” series for Ferentz’s two decades at the helm. Then I realized it’s probably best to wait until he’s actually run the show for 20 years before rolling that out.
There’s a chance Nate Stanley moves farther up the quarterback rankings with his performance in 2018. Noah Fant certainly has a chance to rise up among an impressive group of tight ends. There are others.
One position where there likely won’t be a lot of movement is linebacker. The Hawkeyes are breaking in three new starters. We’re probably looking at somebody needing this year and next, at least, to work their way into the conversation here.
With that in mind and it being a slow time for Hawkeye athletics, I decided to put together my list. It was inspired by a talk I had with Abdul Hodge in the fall.
I asked him who was the best middle linebacker during the last 19 years. I offered up him, Fred Barr, Mike Klinkenborg, Pat Angerer, James Morris or Josey Jewell as possibilities. Without hesitation, he said Jewell.
Despite it being a strong group of candidates, it’s tough to argue with Hodge. And he’s a pretty good judge.
Here’s a look at my Top 10 of the Ferentz Era:
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10. Anthony Hitchens, ’10-13, WIL
- Why he’s here: A member of the top trio of linebackers playing at the same time during the Ferentz Era, “Hitch” ranks 22nd on the school’s all-time tackle list with 270 (125 solo). As a senior in ’13, he earned the Roy J. Carver Most Valuable Player on the defense, the Hayden Fry ‘Extra Heartbeat’ Award on the defense and second team all-Big Ten honors by league coaches. He started in his final 24 games at Iowa, recording double figures in tackles in 13 of them.
9. Ben Niemann, ’14-17, LEO
- Why he’s here: He started 40 games during the last three years at a critical position in the Iowa defense. He finished his career with 201 tackles but that doesn’t tell the whole story of his value. One of the best linebackers in coverage during the Ferentz Era, showing the ability to run with tight ends, running backs and receivers while still supporting the run. As a senior, he collected 80 tackles (45 solo, 6 for loss), a sack, intercepted a pass, broke up five passes, forced two fumbles and recovered one.
8. A.J. Edds, ’06-09, LEO
- Why he’s here: A three-year starter, Edds created the blueprint at the LEO spot that was followed by guys like Niemann and Christian Kirksey. After moving over from tight end during his true freshman year, he showed the versatility needed to excel at the position. It was on display in ’09 as one of leaders on a standout defense. He racked up 78 tackles (25 solo), picked off five passes, broke up four others and added 4.5 tackles for loss. His 221 career tackles rank 54th all-time.
7. James Morris, ’10-13, MLB
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- Why he’s here: Started 42 games and ranks seventh in program history with 400 career tackles. As a senior, he finished second on team with 107 tackles (53 solo), led it in interceptions (4), tackles for loss (18) and sacks (8). He also forced two fumbles and recovered one. He earned second team all-Big Ten laurels from league coaches and media that season. He captured the Hayden Fry ‘Extra Heartbeat’ Award for the defense in ’13 and was one of four finalists for Lott IMPACT Trophy that year.
6. Christian Kirksey, ’10-13, LEO
- Why he’s here: The top player at his position during the Ferentz Era, he started 38 games as a three-year starter. He’s the only LEO linebacker in that time to record at least 100 tackles in a season, racking up 104 as a senior to rank third on the team. He added five tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two recovered fumbles and two fumbles caused, an interception and a pass break-up that year. At the time of his graduation, he was one of three players in school history with three defensive touchdowns.
5. Pat Angerer, ’06-09, MLB
- Why he’s here: Took the longest of guys on this list to break into the starting lineup, but once he figured it out, he dominated. He ranked fourth in the nation in tackles per game (11.2) as a senior when he was credited with 145 stops. His 12.8 tackles per contest in Big Ten play paced the league. A first team all-America by Football Writers Association of America and second team all-America by the Associated Press. He was one of five finalists for Bronko Nagurski Award, and first team all-Big Ten by league coaches and media. Finished with 258 career tackles as a two-year starter.
4. Fred Barr, ’99-02, MLB
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- Why he’s here: The first stud linebacker of the Ferentz/Norm Parker Era, Barr played a big role in turning the Hawkeyes into the Bullies of the Big Ten. A physical man in the middle, he punished ball carriers. His 376 career tackles rank eighth all-time in program history. He earned first-team all-Big Ten honors as a senior when he led the team in tackles (114) for a second year in a row. He notched 10 tackles for loss that season to go with a sack, two forced fumbles and five pass break-ups.
3. Chad Greenway, ’02-05, WIL
- Why he’s here: He earned second-team all-American honors from the Associated Press following a senior season that saw him rack up 156 tackles (95 solo), 10 of which went for a loss. He also broke up eight passes, recorded two sacks and intercepted a pass, and was named first-team all-Big Ten by the coaches and media. His 416 career tackles rank sixth all-time and he was a two-time first-team all-league selection. As a junior, he had 113 tackles (71 solo, 8 for loss), three interceptions and three sacks.
2. Abdul Hodge, ’02-05, MLB
- Why he’s here: Teamed with Greenway to make up the best 1-2 punch at the position in the Ferentz Era. Hodge earned first-team all-Big Ten laurels as a sophomore and junior before landing on the second team as a senior. Ranks third all-time at Iowa with 453 tackles, the most on this list. His 158 tackles (98 solo) in ’05 were the second most in a season. That syear he was credited with a team-high 11 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two quarterback hurries and a sack.
1. Josey Jewell, ’14-17, MLB
- Why he’s here: Jewell led the Big Ten in tackles (136) and ranked fourth nationally in tackles per game (11.3) last season. He recorded 126 tackles as a junior and 124 as a sophomore, finishing with 437 for his career to rank fourth on the all-time list. He was a unanimous consensus all-American in ’17, the only one of them on here. He’s the only sophomore under Ferentz to be named permanent team captain. He took home the Lott Impact Trophy and the Jack Lambert Award last fall. He was the Big Ten’s linebacker of the year.
Also Considered (no order): LeVar Woods, Mike Dolezal, Grant Steen, Roger Meyer, Kevin Worthy, George Lewis, Ed Miles, Mike Klinkenborg, Mike Humpal, Jeremiha Hunter, Tyler Nielsen, Quinton Alston, Cole Fisher, Bo Bower.