IOWA CITY, Iowa – This dream season for Cole Fisher almost never was. Iowa’s senior weak-side linebacker saw his football career flash before his eyes during a meeting with position coach Jim Reid before last season.
Reid suggested to Fisher that it might be a good idea to wind up his Hawkeye run following the 2014 campaign. The assistant didn’t doubt the Omaha product’s talent just his commitment to the sport.
Fisher put his Civil Engineering major ahead of football. Iowa’s afternoon practices often conflicted with his classes and he chose academics. Reid felt it might be better for the student if he eliminated the demands of major college athletics.
“That’s kind of a shocker when that happens,” Fisher said. “I’d say that was a big turning point because last year during bowl prep is where I made the most improvement and then I just kept taking step after step through spring ball and into camp. So, that was a little bit of a slap in the face and it kind of woke me up a little bit and I just kind of kept improving since then.”
After bouncing around between Iowa’s three linebacker spots in his first four years on campus, Fisher (6-2, 236) settled in at WILL. He credited being able to focus on one job as a reason why he’s improved.
Fisher heads to Saturday’s Big Ten Championship against Michigan State (7:17 p.m. CT, FOX) ranked ninth in the conference in tackles per game (8.6). He has 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, five pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and an interception.
After red shirting in 2011 following an all-state senior season at Omaha Millard North High, Fisher played almost exclusively on special teams the last three years. He performed well on those units and has continued to play on them this fall. He also earned academic all-Big Ten honors in ’14 for a third year in a row.
Iowa’s move to morning practices this season could have benefitted Fisher had they come earlier in his career. A demanding course load as an Engineering Major consistently forced him out of workouts.
“I was trying my best throughout the year but I had a bunch of class conflicts. It wasn’t until the bowl prep (last December) where I could just focus on football and not school where I was able to make bigger strides. I sometimes think how football would have gone without engineering but it’s a little late for that, I guess,” Fisher said.
It would be hard to wipe the smile off Fisher’s face these days. He doesn’t regret the path he’s traveled. He appreciates it.
“Seriously, this whole entire season has been like one dream that I just don’t want to wake up from quite yet. I just never thought it would happen. Now that it is, I’m just trying to enjoy every minute of it,” he said.
INJURY REPORT: Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, as one would expect, issued a vague injury report on Tuesday. He didn’t want to tip his hand for competitive purposes or put any of his athletes in danger.
“The guys that were injured in the (Friday’s Nebraska) ballgame are working back right now, some on a limited basis, but we’re hopeful to have them all at kick-off time. So, that part’s all good,” Ferentz said.
Reporters asked the coach specifically about linebacker Ben Niemann and Nate Meier, a defensive end. They were injured at Nebraska.
Ferentz said that Niemann still was going through concussion protocol but practiced on Tuesday. Teammate Josey Jewell inadvertently cracked him in the head during the first half in Lincoln.
“He’s doing great. He could always turn the other way, you never know. Those things are unpredictable, but I think he’s good to go,” Ferentz said.
Meier has been limited in practice this week, Ferentz said. He suffered a leg injury at Nebraska and has been dealing with a bum shoulder for much of the season.
“Hopefully (he’ll be able to play against Michigan State)” Ferentz said. “He’s on a limited basis right now. It’s a soft tissue issue.”
RECRUITING RESPITE: This week is an open period for recruiting when coaches can go out and meet with prospects. Ferentz said his staff has contacted its targets to let them know coaches will be out to see them after Saturday’s title game.
“We just tried to explain to them that this is full metal jacket right now; we’re straight ahead trying to get ready for this ballgame. They certainly understand that, and I think they all want what we want — to see a good football game on Saturday,” Ferentz said.
“We’ll hit the road, a couple of guys will leave right from Indy on Saturday, most of them will come back, and then go out that night or the next morning.”
The Hawkeyes have secured 24 known verbal commitments in the 2016 recruiting class.
THE MAVERICK: Ferentz was asked again if he felt vindicated by this fall’s 12-0 regular season and Top 5 national ranking. Last year at this time, some folks outside the program called for changes after a lackluster 7-5 campaign.
Ferentz once again refused to pat himself on the back. He instead made light of the situation by poking fun at perceived changes in him that have created nicknames like “New Kirk.”
“New Kirk, Maverick Kirk, okay. I know in the world we live in right now, walking the plank is really a popular thing,” he said.
“I’ve been here 26 years. About the only thing I know anymore is about what’s going on here, and hopefully I’ve got some idea what’s going on.”
Watch the coach in action here:
BIG THREE: With a 13-0 record as Iowa’s starting quarterback, C.J. Beathard is now in select company.
The junior from Franklin, Tenn., joins former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Jameis Winston as the only quarterbacks since 2010 to be 13-0 as a starter.
“It’s an honor,” Beathard said. “They’re two great quarterbacks, and obviously, they’re doing a great job in the NFL. And the fact that I’m even mentioned in the same sentence with them is an honor.
“But I’ve got a long ways to go and always will continue to get better.”
Newton won the Heisman Trophy in 2010 and led Auburn to the national title that season. He was selected first overall in the 2011 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers, who are currently the NFL’s only undefeated team at 11-0.
Winston won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman at Florida State in 2013. He also was taken first overall in the 2015 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. – Pat Harty
QUICK-HITTERS: A victory on Saturday would give Michigan State its second Big Ten Championship in the past three seasons, following a title in 2013, and its ninth overall. Meanwhile, Iowa will look to secure its 12th Big Ten Championship and first since 2004…Iowa leads the all-time series 23-20-2, although Michigan State claimed a 26-14 victory in the last meeting between the two teams on Oct. 5, 2013 in Iowa City…Michigan State earned its 11th victory of the season Saturday against Penn State, marking the fourth time in the past five seasons that the Spartans have won at least 11 games…Iowa has a balanced offense. Its 4,851 total yards are divided by 2,444 yards rushing, and 2,407 yards passing…The Hawkeyes scored 30-plus points in five straight Big Ten games for the first time in school history.