Iowa CITY, Iowa - When dissecting Iowa football heading into 2014, one position rises above the others in terms of wonderment. That happens when you lose all of your starters from a given unit.
That's what the Hawkeye face heading into camp next month. A group of players are competing for first-team reps at linebacker.
"Yeah, I guess you could say there's a spotlight on us," junior Travis Perry said with a smile. "But this is what we've been working for. It's our time to see if we can keep it going."
Perry entered spring ball No. 1 at LEO, a spot vacated by Christian Kirksey, a third-round pick of Cleveland in May's NFL Draft. The redshirt junior from Urbandale battled health issues in April but is ready to go for camp.
"I don't think it set me back," the former walk-on said. "I worked in the film room and on conditioning."
Quinton Alston was expected to open August as the first-team middle linebacker. He'd replace four-year starter James Morris, who signed an NFL free agent contract with New England in May before being cut. A fifth-year senior, Alston has stood out on special teams but has seen very few defensive game reps.
True sophomore Reggie Spearman held the No. 1 WILL slot in the spring. The Chicago product played special teams last season and also saw time in the Raider Package as a rush end. He'd step in for Anthony Hitchens, a fourth-round selection of Dallas in the spring's NFL Draft.
Let's take a closer look at Iowa's linebacker position heading into '14:
Contenders: Reggie Spearman (6-3, 230), true sophomore; Cole Fisher (6-2, 233), redshirt junior; Travis Perry (6-3, 232), redshirt junior; Bo Bower (6-1, 220), redshirt freshman; Josey Jewell (6-2, 225), redshirt freshman; John Kenny (6-2, 225), redshirt freshman; Luke Lindahl (6-0, 215), redshirt freshman; Chad Gilson (6-1, 235), redshirt senior; Laron Taylor (6-0, 225), redshirt sophomore; Quinton Alston (6-1, 232), redshirt senior; Drake Kulick (6-1, 220), redshirt freshman; Parker Hesse(6-3, 208), true freshman; Aaron Mends (6-0, 200), true freshman; Ben Niemann (6-3, 200), true freshman; Jameer Outsey (6-3, 225), true freshman.
The Favorites: Alston looks like a lock at middle linebacker, while Perry and Spearman are the clear choices on the outside.
Breakdown: As mentioned in our lead-in here, much of the preseason handwringing will be focused on the linebackers. It's sure to be a hot topic for upcoming media days in Chicago and Iowa City.
It's warranted to a degree. Last year's seniors dominated the playing time the last two seasons and inexperience in game situations for the returnees is a legitimate concern. But while replacing a whole set of starting linebackers at once is uncommon, players graduating is part of college football.
Alston already could have been a first-teamer in a lot of programs that didn't have Morris. He was a solid recruit out of New Jersey and after four years in Iowa City, it's conceivable he could enjoy the same success as, say, Bradley Fletcher did when he waited until his senior season to start.
For the last three years, Perry has worked his way up from walk-on to scholarship. He's performed on special teams and brings the athleticism and versatility needed to play the challenging LEO spot.
Spearman has a chance to be special. He took his lumps at times as an undersized end in the Raider, but he also experienced what it's like to play big boy football. That should help his transition into an every-down player. He possesses the skill set to be an outstanding WILL.
While Alston, Perry and Spearman are the leaders in the clubhouse, other players on the course have a chance to challenge them. Cole Fisher, Josey Jewell, John Kenny and Chad Gilson are talented and could push the favorites. Laron Taylor looked to have made strides with his showing in the spring game and walk-ons Bo Bower, Drake Kulick and Luke Lindahl are looking to follow in Perry's footsteps.
This also is a position where we could see contributions from true freshmen. Parker Hesse, Aaron Mends, Ben Niemann and Jameer Outsey might get broken in on special teams.
As last season went on, Defensive Coordinator Phil Parker took full advantage of his experienced and talented linebackers. They blitzed to help a lagging pass rush from the front. They wreaked havoc at Nebraska.
We'll have to see if this group is capable of continuing that dynamic. Perhaps an seasoned line will make it less necessary for the second level to bring pressure as often. Time will tell.
RWI (Rob Worry Index): Moderate (other choices are Extreme, Significant, Faint and Absent).