Not a lot changes this year at the linebacker positions. Iowa does graduate Cole Fisher, who was a key member of the Iowa defense last season, but returns both Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann as starters from a season ago. All signs are pointing to Aaron Mends replacing Fisher as the weak-side linebacker. If not Mends, I'd say Jack Hockaday would be the guy there.
The Iowa coaching staff, mainly the departed Jim Reid, raved about Mends ever since the Rose Bowl loss it seems like. Mends played sparingly last season and didn't get much of a chance to really show us what he's made of.
After those four you look towards Bo Bower, Justin Jinning, who redshirted in 2015 and Angelo Garbutt, who also redshirted in 2015. Nick Wilson also got second team defense reps in the spring game and figures to factor in some place.
Those are the five to eight guys that I see playing at the linebacker spot this season.
I want to start with Josey Jewell because I think he's the easiest to evaluate. He's a beast plain and simple. Outside of Desmond King he was Iowa's best defensive player. He has the motor that you look for in a middle linebacker and seems to tackle everything that comes in his path. I remember watching him deflect a pass last season and then run down the player that caught the deflection and record the tackle.
We know what Ben Niemann is as well. He's going to give this defense the stability it needs at the outside linebacker spot. He isn't flashy, but he gets the job done.
The question mark is at weak-side linebacker. It's either going to be Aaron Mends, who is an absolute beast in the weight room, or Jack Hockaday, who is a guy I have been a fan of ever since he was playing high school ball at Maroa Forsyth in Illinois. Both players are going to be capable of starting at the weak-side spot, but it's just going to depend on who outplays whom when fall camp rolls around.
I thought both played well in the spring game and it's a toss up in my opinion, but I think it slightly favors Mends at this point.
Bo Bower is a player that I expected to be starting this year when I saw him a few years ago, but he just hasn't really progressed it's seemed. Bower will give Iowa meaningful reps, however.
Then it's Wilson, Garbutt, and Jinning, who will all play sparingly and will impact Iowa when it comes to the special teams side of things.
Linebacker is going to be one of Iowa's strong points in the 2016 season. When you return your leading tackler in Jewell and an experienced running mate in Niemann, that gives you a good sense of what you'll be getting from the corp. When you factor in the potential of both Mends and Hockaday the linebackers could be the strongest part of the Iowa defense this fall.
Jewell is starting to become more of a leader on the defensive side of the ball and the potential from the others is there. They lose Cole Fisher, who was a very nice player for the Iowa defense, but I think the additions far out-weigh the loses here, and that isn't anything against Fisher.
I think by week four or five we are talking about how special this linebacking corp is and will be heading deeper into the season and even into next season considering they don't lose anyone after 2016 concludes.
Linebacker is going to be a strong position for the Hawkeyes this fall. They will have to back up the fairly inexperienced defensive ends, but the potential is there for them too.
This is going to be the position that the fans and the coaches won't have to worry about at all considering all that comes back. Hockaday and Mends will both play valuable roles and don't be surprised if Mends is the second best linebacker of this bunch right after Jewell.