IOWA CITY, Iowa – When Iowa holds its annual Kids Day event Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, it’s fair to assume fans will focus on new starting signal caller C.J. Beathard. They’re called arm-chair quarterbacks for a reason.
While who lines up behind center and how he performs elicits a natural curiosity, it would be wise for the Hawkeye faithful to guide their eyes to the other side of the ball. The Iowa defense must bounce back after collapsing at the end of 2014.
The slide started at Minnesota when the Gophers embarrassed their rivals in a 51-14 rout. It continued throughout a stretch where Iowa lost four of its final five games, ending with a 45-28 whooping at the hands of Tennessee in the Taxslayer Bowl.
A closer examination of that unit reveals that it boasted two NFL Draft picks at tackle in Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and a second-team all-Big Ten choice in Drew Ott at end. Yet, teams often ran at will against the Hawkeyes, particularly to the outside.
It would be unfair to lay all of the blame at the feet of linebackers. Departed MLB Quinton Alston was tabbed as a second-team all-conference pick.
However, while other areas of the defense broke down at times, linebacker did so most frequently. The end result was a team that ranked 64th nationally against the rush, allowing 168.3 yards per game on the ground, 4.42 per carry.
With Alston gone, three sophomores sit atop of the depth chart. Pressure is on Bo Bower, Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann to raise the consistency of play on the second level.
Bower, a former walk-on from West Branch (Iowa) High, switches to the Will after starting 13 games at Leo a year ago. At 6-foot-1, 228 pounds, offenses will likely challenge him to stop the rush on the weak side.
"I think I’ll be fine there. It doesn’t matter where the coaches put me, honestly. I think that’s with anybody, really. You can move us all around the field and we’ll be fine. Wherever they need us to go, we’ll be there," he said.
Jewell (6-2, 230) began ’14 sidelined with an injury but rose up the depth chart to start the final four games at Will. He moved to Mike this spring after earning Iowa’s MVP honors in the Taxslayer Bowl upon recording 14 tackles.
"I’ve gained a couple of pounds so it feels a little bit better. I came in (to Iowa) at 190. You’re just able to take on more blocks and feel more comfortable," he said.
Niemann (6-3, 225) stood out on special teams as a true freshman last season. In practice, he showed the coaches that he could handle the Leo position and is built like previous position standouts, A.J. Edds and Christian Kirksey, to name a few.
"You’ve got to be able to run well. You also have to be physical at the line of scrimmage because we’re going against tight ends, sometimes offensive linemen. I think it’s kind of a little bit of a unique skill set compared to other positions because it’s not like the inside backers," Niemann said.
Linebacker Coach Jim Reid is confident his guys are ready to roll this fall.
"What makes it really special working with all of them is that there are some guys that are willing to work and there are some guys that want to work. There’s a dramatic difference in those words. And these guys want to. They want to be better and they drive themselves," Reid said.
"It’s great to not have to supply motivation to get people to play. These guys just want to come out and are like, hey, you better coach me right. This is what I want to do and you better be on point or they’ll challenge you."
The young linebackers are being pushed by a pair of fifth-year seniors in Travis Perry and Cole Fisher. The veterans aren’t about to concede playing time to the underclassmen.
"The guy that probably impresses us the most (early in camp) is Cole Fisher. He’s done a good job. Ben Niemann is the starter right now but there’s good competition out there," Defensive Coordinator Phil Parker said.
As it stands now, Perry is behind Jewell and redshirt freshman Aaron Mends is backing up Bower. Parker said the pieces can move around comfortably.
"I think we have a good group of linebackers. I think guys can play different positions. They all can run. They all can hit. They love the game. It’s just going to be interesting how it all pans out," he said.
You can sense an edge to the linebackers. They hear the criticism levied at them from a year ago. Perhaps that’s where the the motivation Reid talks about comes from.
"We looked at all our negatives and we’re just trying to fix it every day," Jewell said.
Perry and Fisher deserve credit for checking their egos at the door. They could take it personal that they’re being asked to teach guys ahead of them on the depth chart and be stingy with their knowledge to further their cause. They don’t.
"They’re the guys that know the defense very well. They’ve been here the longest. They support you every day and we support them. We all love each other at the linebacker position and we’re all excited to see what we can do here," Jewell said.
The Iowa defense depends on them raising their level of play from a year ago, Heck, the whole team needs them to do so.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW FOR KIDS DAY
When: Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015
Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
Pre-Practice Events: Activities in Krause Family Plaza are slated to begin at 9 a.m. Central Time. There will be inflatable games, face painting, temporary tattoos and other prizes. From 10:30-11, Herky will be available for photos. There’s also a clothing drive to benefit UI Children’s Hospital. Fans are encouraged to drop off their donations between 8:30 and noon outside gates A or D.
Practice: Fans will be allowed into Kinnick beginning at 11 with the workout scheduled to begin at noon. Attendees should enter the facility through gates A and E with regular game-day security searches being applied. They will be able to sit in the South and West Stands.
Free schedule posters, cards, magnets, key tags and rosters will be available to fans. Team members will sign autographs at approximately 11:30 along the front of the West and South stands. Fans are discouraged from bringing additional items, outside of what’s available to them at the stadium, to be autographed.
Free parking is available to fans in the hard surface lots. Normal ramp fees will be charged. Concessions stands will be open with items sold for half price. Alcohol consumption is prohibited by law on university property for this event.