Niemann, Campbell among Iowa linebackers prepared to step up this season

Kristian Welch graduated, Dillon Doyle transferred, and Djimon Colbert opted out of the season, leaving Iowa with holes to fill at linebacker.


Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa players run onto the field during a football game between Iowa and Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Gophers, 23-19.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

Nick Niemann ended his 2019 season with a career game in the Holiday Bowl and will be back on Iowa’s defense in 2020. That can’t be said for Iowa’s other top linebackers from last season.

The team’s leading tackler from a season ago, Kristian Welch, graduated. But that was expected. Dillon Doyle’s decision to transfer to Baylor and Djimon Colbert opting out of the 2020 season because of the pandemic were surprises.

“Obviously coming into the season we didn’t expect two guys to not be here that have played a significant role on defense,” Niemann, a senior, said. “… But I think our whole room has done a good job of embracing everything that’s gone on. I think we have great chemistry in there and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can put on the table this fall.”

Doyle, a redshirt sophomore, left the Hawkeye program after his father, longtime Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, agreed to a separation agreement with the University of Iowa.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz confirmed Monday that Colbert, a junior, was one of two Iowa players to step away from the team this season amid the pandemic. Colbert will be back with the Hawkeyes for the 2021 season.

RELATED: Two Iowa football players opt out of 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns

Colbert was Iowa’s starting weakside linebacker for much of the past two seasons, and Doyle saw playing time in all 13 games in 2019 and was expected to compete for the starting spot at middle linebacker.

Now other players will have to step up.

Niemann has starting experience at outside linebacker for the Hawkeyes, but said on a video conference Wednesday that he has been taking most of his snaps at weakside linebacker this fall as the team prepares for its Oct. 24 opener against Purdue.

“I was already fairly comfortable being in there so it wasn’t a huge adjustment for me,” Niemann said. “But it’s been nice just being there every day in practice. Having some consistency.”

The favorite to win the job at middle linebacker seems to be Jack Campbell.

The Cedar Falls native saw playing time as a freshman last season. Now a sophomore, Campbell said the game has slowed down for him. Making calls on defense and picking up on the opposing team’s formations and tendencies can be difficult, especially for a younger player.

Campbell’s growth in that area, in large part, can be attributed to his current and former teammates.

“Last year Kristian kind of took me under his wing,” Campbell said. “He was always watching film with me, just talking about how he sees things and how he makes different checks.

“Nick has been a good leader in the linebacker room. He, Barrington Wade, and Nick Anderson are all seniors and it’s been helpful to see their insights as veterans. Sometimes at practice they will be like, ‘Jack, why are we making this call when we know the play is going over here?’ And that’s been very beneficial for me.”

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Wade, who has one career start, has primarily played strongside linebacker or “Leo” in his time with the Hawkeyes, but the team’s switch from a 4-3 base defense to a 4-2-5 defense with a “cash” safety has mostly negated that position being on the field.

“It bothered me a little bit, but not too much because I’m always trying to learn something new,” Wade said. “I knew that if we didn’t use that position as much then I would have to work harder to get to a different position.”

The Skokie, Illinois, native said Wednesday that he’s been getting snaps at both middle and weakside linebacker in Iowa’s preseason practices.

Knowing how to play both those positions is going to be crucial this season for every Iowa linebacker, Niemann said. No matter what defensive set the Hawkeyes are in or which team they are facing — and especially now that Welch, Colbert, and Doyle are no longer with the team — the entire linebacker room needs to be ready to play.

“Our room, now more than ever, has just been kind of mixing and matching guys,” Niemann said. “Getting everybody to play every position. I think now with us moving to more of the nickel look on defense… the ‘Mike’ and ‘Will’ are kind of interchangeable in a sense. Everyone is trying to learn both those positions.”