IOWA CITY — Before turning its thoughts to next Saturday’s game at Northwestern, this week has been all about generation next for the linebackers in the Iowa football program.
Middle linebacker Josey Jewell was given time to heal the shoulder he dinged during the first half of last week’s game against Illinois. The two players who flank him, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann, were rested as well.
The trio of seniors has combined to start 102 games for Iowa, and together they’ve collectively been a part of 136 games over the past four seasons.
The benefits of that experience can be found in the Hawkeyes’ 4-2 record and on the tackle charts where Jewell leads the Big Ten with 70 tackles and Bower and Niemann rank second and third on the Hawkeye list with 38 and 31 stops, respectively.
But, the lack of experience behind the three veterans remains a concern for defensive coordinator Phil Parker.
He said Wednesday he likes what he sees developing, although game conditions have limited playing time for reserves Jack Hockaday, Amani Jones, Aaron Mends and Kristian Welch inside and Nick Niemann on the outside.
“They haven’t had much chance to be in there with live competition. Toward the end of (the Illinois game), we got them in there for the last eight, nine minutes,’’ Parker said. “Probably wasn’t enough, but obviously the biggest focus for us is trying to win the game at hand.’’
Additional opportunities, Parker said, come down to earning those chances by mirroring the efforts of three linebackers who haven’t left the field much through the first half of the season.
“They’ve got to earn that spot. They’ve got to get our trust to get on the field,’’ Parker said. “This has been a big week for them to get out there and move some guys around as we try to figure out who is going to be the next guy in.’’
Options do exist.
That is what this week has been about on the practice field as coaches have taken a look at different combinations of linebackers and given several a chance to work at multiple positions.
“We’ve been mixing these guys up and there are times when you have got to remember, hey this guy is in here at Mike and this guy is at Will, so some of it is not going to be perfect because there’s definitely different reads,’’ Parker said. “Both of those guys are inside backers at times, but obviously you’re getting different looks.’’
He said the mixing and matching has tended to slow things down, but he considers it a necessary part of the development process and along with work throughout the rest of the season will help form a starting point for the three positions next spring.
“This has been a good week to do what we’ve done, switch some guys in and out and give some guys who have been playing a lot some rest,’’ Parker said.
Parker believes this week can be beneficial for Iowa’s veterans as well.
He uses Jewell to illustrate his point.
“As many snaps as he’s playing and how many plays he’s making, it takes a toll on the body,’’ Parker said. “… I think by standing and watching, his game is going to become better. He’ll improve this week just by watching, and I think he’s done that.’’
Parker believes the Hawkeyes are positioned for defensive growth during the second half of the season, building around its core strength at linebacker.
He likes the way Iowa’s eight-player rotation at the four defensive line positions has developed and believes the return of Brandon Snyder has improved communication on the back end of the Hawkeye defense.
“We have some things to clean up, but I like the effort, and I feel like we have a good chance to move forward,’’ Parker said.