One of the biggest questions surrounding Hawkeye football entering the season narrowed in on the linebackers.
After three-year starters Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann, and Bo Bower graduated, Iowa was forced to look at three replacements without any real experience on the defensive side of the ball.
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The measure ended up working out — the Hawkeyes became a top-10 defense despite the youthfulness of its linebacker corps and secondary.
Iowa turned to Amani Jones, Ben Niemann, and Kristian Welch to start the season, but that lineup didn’t even last a full quarter. Jack Hockaday replaced Jones in the first quarter, and kept his place in the starting rotation when he wasn’t injured.
Not too long after, Djimon Colbert made his case to be a starter after switching from defensive back before spring practice, taking over for Welch as the weak-side backer.
Throw in Amani Hooker, winner of the Tatum-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Award, who started seven games at outside linebacker for his first starts at linebacker in his career.
Despite all of the shifting that happened throughout the season — something that very rarely happened the previous three seasons — the Hawkeye defense remained strong.
Iowa’s backers filled holes often, becoming the seventh-ranked rushing defense in the country, giving up just 102.8 yards on the ground per game.
The individual stats, however, weren’t as impressive as they had been in seasons past.
In 2017, Jewell, Bower, and Niemann finished first, second, and third on the team, respectively, in tackles. Jewell led the team with 132 stops, Bower followed with 90, and Niemann racked up 77.
The consistency the former Hawkeye trio had built and the chemistry that had grown while they spent years playing by each other’s side helped the unit take over in the back seven.
Safety Jake Gervase led the way in 2018 with 77 tackles, which would have tied for third on the team last season.
The linebacker with the most tackles this year was Hockaday, who made 56 stops — 21 fewer than the third-best Hawkeye backer in 2017.
Colbert came in next with 51, Welch followed with 49, and Nick Niemann had 38. A big part of that is that no linebacker started every game this season.
Still, despite the shifts that occurred continually, the unit banded together to post solid numbers as a team.
A big help to the inexperienced linebacker corps came from the stellar defensive line playing in front of it.
The line was deep, allowing each player to get sufficient rest while not losing strength on the field.
With a group in front that did its job incredibly well, the linebackers were able to ease into things without too much pressure on them.
“[The defensive line] certainly not hurting, guarantee you, and it makes it a lot easier as you know to play back there if you have some guys doing a good job,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Coming into this season I was a little — I don’t know if concern is the right word, but curious to see how we play inside. Felt really good about our ends.”