Position Battles: Linebacker
by Patrick Webb
Linebacker is another perceived question mark heading into this season. The Hawk’s will be replacing Middle Linebacker and all-time quote Pat Angerer and the new standard for the Leo position, three-year starter A.J. Edds known by DC Norm Parker as “The Professor”. Both were selected in the NFL Draft- Angerer, continuing the Iowa pipeline to the Indianapolis Colts, in the second round and Edds in the fourth to the Miami Dolphins.
So how do the Hawkeyes look this season?
Jeremiha Hunter returns for his third year as the starting Weak-side ‘backer. Hunter was consistently praised throughout the spring and will certainly be counted on to step up his play to help fill the void in replacing Angerer and Edds. But it seems like these battles were won in the spring, although I am sure the competition will rage on during the fall camp and injuries are sure to impact this position. Jeff Tarpinian seemed win the MLB job early and never looked back and Tyler Nielsen has been personally groomed by Edds since he set foot on campus to take over the Leo position.
Tarpinian has a lot of game experience playing ILB and OLB in the 3-4 package, and SLB in Iowa’s nickel and may have been the Hawk’s best cover linebacker last season. He filled in for Hunter during the second half of the OSU game and had some struggles versus the run. He seemed to have addressed those in the spring game.
Nielsen is a very fluid athlete who has battled injuries throughout his career so far at Iowa. He has a great frame for the position and looked natural in the spring game at the Leo spot. He has the speed and agility to run with receivers and speedy tight ends and the size to take on blockers at the point.
The options besides Tarpinian at Mike would include Junior Bruce Davis, a fellow special teams standout who is very stout against the run but isn’t the athlete that Tarpinian is, and isn’t quite as adept in pass coverage right now. Senior Troy Johnson could be in the mix, but seems more natural at either of the outside spots. He certainly will be pushing for time after his performance versus Minnesota in the regular season finale, where he won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Award. He seems to be more suited to pass coverage though and may not be suited to the pounding that the Mike position would entail.
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Freshman James Morris, Austin Gray and Jim Poggi will be fighting for reps and pushing for time at the Mike and Will positions and the right to hold off red-shirting. I think it is unlikely that one of these players will beat out one of the upperclassmen for a spot on the two deeps.
If Nielsen is going to be battled for playing time I think the most likely candidate will be Troy Johnson. Johnson is a versatile enough athlete to play all of Iowa’s spots and has probably taken reps at all of them, also. Iowa’s staff tends to value experience above all else. Another intriguing candidate could be Lance Tillison who is returning back to Iowa for his senior campaign. Tillison was a defensive back during his first tenure at Iowa but I believe he is trying to make a run at the Leo position now. He has the speed and cover skills to excel when lined up over a slot receiver, but he may struggle to set the edge when asked to take on a tight end. I am very excited to see him back on campus, however.
Senior Ross Peterson was the second-teamer during the spring, making the transition from a crowded tight end field. He looked pretty athletic and read his keys very well, he could factor in the mix for the depth chart. Finally the next heir (a la Nielsen) may be on the roster in true freshman Christian Kirksey, who could use the red- shirt year to gain strength but is a very intriguing, athletic option at the position.
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The battle to back up Hunter will start again with Johnson. Shane DiBona was someone that really flashed at me during the spring drills as he was really sharp in his drops and reading his keys. The three freshmen that I mentioned for the Mike spot will all factor in here as well. Sophomore Cameron Olson is also someone else here who may factor in at one of the inside spots in 2011.
I am not worried about this unit at all. With so much experience in front and behind the new starters, it should make for a relatively easy transition for a very talented unit. What I am really interested to see is how the defense is used. Will Norm play 4-3, 3-4, or Nickel on 3rd and long? If he goes nickel or dime who comes off the field? During the spring the Nickel was comprised of Johnson at Mike and Tarp at SLB. If they play 3-4 which d-lineman do you take off the field? These are the questions that make me an insomniac. Will Davis replace Tarp on Goalline? I am just so excited about the possibilities.
I expect the coaching staff to play two of the freshman and red-shirt the other two. I really have no idea who that will end up being but if I had to guess I would say Morris and Gray see the field immediately, while Poggi and Kirksey take the redshirts. My Riser of the group is Shane DiBona. I was excited by his performance in the spring drills and I am guessing he will rise to the challenge he is facing with the arrival of this group of talented freshman.
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Here is an attempt at a three deep. I am leaving #54 Markus Kloos and 61 Casey Kreiter off of it for now.
Leo……….45 Tyler Nielsen JR………50 Lance Tillison SR………20 Christian Kirksey FR
Mike………33 Jeff Tarpinian SR…….57 Bruce Davis JR…………52 Austin Gray FR/ 43 Jim Poggi FR
Will……….42 Jeremiha Hunter SR….48 Troy Johnson SR……….37 Shane DiBona R.FR/ 44 James Morris FR