STARTERS: JOSEY JEWELL, BEN NIEMANN, AARON MENDS
BACK-UPS: JACK HOCKADAY, BO BOWER
OTHERS: JUSTIN JINNING, NICK WILSON, ANGELO GARBUTT
INCOMING: KYLE TAYLOR, AMANI JONES, BARRINGTON WADE, KRISTIAN WELCH, NICK NIEMANN
2015 GRADE: A-
ANALYSIS: This is a high grade, especially for a unit that had their share of struggles the prior two seasons. They were great. Josey Jewell is an upcoming star. He may already be one. Ben Niemann took a big jump as well and his potential is through the roof. Niemann is flexible, has great change of direction, and speed. Cole Fisher doesn't have the measurables or instincts as the other two have but he was very productive and was very sound and fundamental. Fisher was always where he needed to be.
Jewell is physical and fearless. He flies to the football, takes on bigger blocker and rips away, and arrives at the ball-carriers with a bad attitude. You're not going to out-physical or out-tough him. He's also a fantastic leader.
Niemann is still a bit more raw and may even have a higher ceiling in terms of athleticism and full potential. Jewell is better now but it may not finish that way. Niemann has an incredible blend of size, length, and speed. He can do a lot of things that other linebackers can't and may be more natural in pass coverage. He just has to get stronger and take on blockers better and be more physical but his day is coming and it isn't that far off.
Aaron Mends is the listed starter now to replace Fisher. It will be quite a battle with between him and Jack Hockaday who was a true freshman this past season.
OUTLOOK: The linebackers got an A- this past season and it has a chance to be even better the next two seasons. They only lose Cole Fisher, and while he played well, the guys replacing him have a much higher ceiling and are better athletically. Mends and Hockaday have more potential than Fisher ever had and they are much more athletic and better fits in the role. They will need to get stronger, be more physical, but they can play faster, especially Mends.
The position battle between Mends and Hockaday will be a heated one. Hockaday shred his redshirt halfway through last season to not only help out on special teams when injuries caused that portion of the team to be thin, but to also be able to contribute at linebacker this upcoming year. I think he plays but I believe Mends ultimately wins the job.
Mends, Hockaday, Jewell, and Niemann will get the most time at linebacker. Bower will also get some reps and be one of the defensive ends in the 'Raider' package like he was a year ago. Those are your five linebackers. If they rotate in a sixth or have to because of injury, expect Angelo Garbutt to be the guy. I think he's higher on the pecking order than Justin Jinning or Nick Wilson.
This is a group that is among the most talented and among the most deep. The defense as a whole is loaded with talent and some depth but I'd be most comfortable with the linebacker unit. The defensive line will be nice if Drew Ott returns and the defensive back group is talented with the return of Desmond King. Each level is likely replacing one starter but the linebackers are more suited to find the void because of the athleticism potential in their depth.
Jinning and Wilson likely have some waiting to do to find time at linebacker. Mends, Hockaday, and Bower seem to be the preferences behind Niemann and Jewell. They'll be the special teamers most likely.
There's five listed incoming freshmen but not all of them will finish at linebacker. Welch could project to a number of different positions like defensive end, fullback, and tight end. Nick Niemann could grow into a defensive end. I think Barrington Wade and Amani Jones are definitely linebackers and Kyle Taylor probably is. Yes, there's also three or four defensive ends in this class. It'll be interesting how they separate all the similar body types in this class.
Do any of the true freshmen play right away? Hard to see it. They won't need them for at least two more seasons.
"We were talking about young leaders and (Josey Jewell) is one of those people. He's really a strong-minded guy, very committed to his beliefs and his beliefs are in perfect alignment with our football team. He really embodies everything you're looking for in a linebacker, a football player and a young man. He's a tremendous guy." - Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz
"He'll just keep getting better. He'll be stronger and more mature next year and there's no question in my mind he'll embrace the leadership role and bring other guys with him. He's got that ability and I don't know that you teach that. But he came here with it and we're just going to encourage it to continue to grow." - Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz
"That middle linebacker #43 is pretty good. He's all over the place." - Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren
"(Josey Jewell) definite pops up (on tape). He's one of those guys when you watch the tape and he does everything for them. He can hit, he's great at the point of attack, and he fills gaps extremely well. He's a great middle linebacker. We need to know where he is at all times. He brings so many challenges to the field." - Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey
"The middle linebacker is in charge. You need someone (like Josey Jewell) up the middle. You have to be good up the middle. He brings toughness, his effort, and he demonstrates by what he does on the field. He creates a little bit of an attitude for our defense." - Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker
"(Josey Jewell) is very smart. He knows what's going on out there. He knows when to make checks. He's fast as well. He can get to the ball." - Iowa cornerback Desmond King