By Adam Hensley
You get the point — Iowa’s linebacking corps has some big shoes to fill this season, and that void just got larger once Iowa announced that presumed starter Aaron Mends would miss considerable time because of a significant knee injury suffered only two days prior to the Hawkeyes’ open spring practice.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz tabbed Mends’ potential-season-ending injury as a “damper” on spring ball, and he sounded doubtful whether the senior would make a comeback at any point in 2018.
But football is a game of next man up, and that’s exactly what Iowa has done. Nate Stanley succeeded C.J. Beathard, a two-year starter who put together a 21-7 record and etched his name into Hawkeye history with one of the best statistical seasons produced by an Iowa passer.
Josh Jackson, who will likely hear his name called in the first round of the NFL Draft later this week, turned out to be a perfect replacement for defensive back Desmond King, a Jim Thorpe Award winner in 2015.
“Well, it’s always hard to replace three guys who played a lot of football here and had a lot of starts in between them,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said during a press conference on April 17.
Losing three first-unit Hawkeyes and another potential starter to a long-term injury leaves the door wide open for the other linebackers — none of which with any sort of significant playing time on their respective résumés.
Regardless of the skills the next Hawkeyes up bring to the table, the biggest benchmark for Parker is whether the players can pick up on the schemes and read the offense up to speed.
“The more the guys understand the game of football at any position … the more you can help out each other, the guys that are playing next to you, and that’s our goal — to make sure that everybody knows what’s going on every play, on every snap,” he said. “You have to let the guys know next to you what you’re doing. But you can’t do that unless you know what’s going on on the defense.”
Ferentz praised the linebackers, despite the news on Mends, noting that the group has made progress in the limited action in the spring.
Amani Jones was an individual Ferentz had high hopes for; the coach said the Chicago native has “done some really good things” so far in his duties with the first team.
Jones, the current owner of the best squat-weight on the football team, caught Ferentz’s eye when Mike Barry, a long-time football coach, brought his name up at a football clinic.
“He grabbed me … and said, you guys are nuts if you don’t look at this guy,” Ferentz said. “The first time you meet Amani, there’s something about the guy, and he loves the game, and he’s appreciative of the opportunities that are in front of him right now. I’m talking about the whole package, being here in school … Now the trick is, can he convert it into every down playing out there. But he’s made a lot of progress this spring.”
Iowa rolled with a starting trio consisting of Nick Niemann, Jones, and Kristian Welch in its spring practice, but as Niemann said after the final practice, the starters are hardly set in stone.
“Competition is going to go through the fall,” Niemann said. “No job is secure yet for any of us.”