Last year the starting linebackers were the heart of the Iowa football team demonstrated by their 35.5 tackles for loss, 6 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, 6 interceptions, and 11.5 sacks. Now all of that production is gone and Iowa has to find players willing to step up into the big hole that the linebackers left.
Iowa has a player that has been patiently waiting for the past 3 years as a back-up and it’s his time to shine. The other two linebacker positions are a bit more open as no one really knows who is going to start and what to expect from them. I’ll tackle what I think will happen with the linebackers in this preview.
Quinton Alston (#52, Senior, 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, Timber Creek HS (Sicklerville, NJ))
Alston has been biding his time as James Morris has held the middle linebacker position for the past 4 years. Now that Morris has graduated, Alston is ready to step in and show what he can do. Even though he hasn’t started a game, head coach Kirk Ferentz said that he considers Alston a returning starter.
As seen from the spring game, Alston is a very vocal leader on the line, getting all the players in the right positions and making sure everyone is on the same page. He made very good reads and he helped call some stunts along the defensive line, something Morris did frequently. It is a very good sign that he is really vocal right now as his fellow linebackers will need it as they are both young and unexperienced.
Even though Ferentz said that he considers Alston a returning starter, I’m a little worried. This will be the first season starting for him and he is working with a brand new linebacker corps so there will be struggles. Of all the linebackers, I am least worried with Alston, but as I said, I’m a little uneasy, at least for the start of the season.
With all of that being said, it should be made easier by the fact that all the defensive linemen are experienced and skilled, especially at the defensive tackle position. With the linemen swallowing up all the blockers, Alston should be a tackling machine with over 100 tackles. His stats will look really good but there may be some mental mistakes or poor positioning early in the season.
Reggie Spearman (#6, Sophomore, 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Simeon HS (Chicago))
I am just going to say this right away; I am excited to see Reggie Spearman at a starting linebacker spot. He avoided a redshirt last season, played in all the Big Ten games, and did all of this with three established starters ahead of him. Also, he is only 17 years old, turning 18 in August.
Last season, he made his way onto the field in the new “raider” package that Iowa had. They had few down lineman, sometimes none; and the others were standing, ready to rush the passer. With that formation, the offense didn’t know who was going to rush or who was going to drop back into coverage. With Spearman’s speed, he was a premium rusher and would almost always blitz when he was on the field.
Now that he is in his second year, he is developing a more well-rounded game. He has gotten some coverage skills demonstrated in the spring practices. He is playing in Anthony Hitchens’ old spot, which means a lot of run stopping and some rushing of the passer so that will be a good fit for him. Coverage isn’t as important in that spot as it is at the other outside linebacker position. He will still have to improve though.
He is very young, so I am worried about the inexperience. It will help him that Alston is there in the middle directing him, but Spearman will probably have his share of mental mistakes. As long as he doesn’t think too much and just plays he will be fine with his athleticism and talent.
Look for him this season to be a decent player, but show flashes of greatness. Remember, he is only 17 and will turn 18 in August, so he is still extremely young. He has already bulked up and grown an inch since arriving on campus and he may continue to grow. He has elite athleticism and will hopefully demonstrate that on the field. Last year Morris led the team in sacks, the first time a linebacker has done that for Iowa since 1986, and I believe that Spearman could do it again. He is in the right position and has the skill to do so. I am probably being too optimistic right now but I can’t help it. I just have a great feeling about Spearman and I expect him to produce.
Travis Perry (#39, Junior (RS), 6-foot-3, 232 pounds, Urbandale (IA) HS)
This is the position I am worried about the most. Travis Perry right now is slated to start at the outside linebacker spot that was held by Christian Kirksey the past 3 years. The Iowa coaches have said multiple times how lucky they were to have a player like Kirksey. Normally in passing situations, teams like to switch out some linebackers and defensive linemen for defensive backs, but not with Kirksey. He was athletic enough to rush the passer really well and play outstanding coverage matched up with both wide receivers and tight ends. He allowed Iowa to defend both the run and the pass without making huge formation changes and that helped the Iowa defense become one of the best in the nation.
Travis Perry walked on after not receiving any offers from any division one schools. He redshirted his first year on campus. The coaches during his redshirt season were saying how good he was and how he has really surprised them. Then, his freshman redshirt season when Hitchens was out with an illness, he stepped in and started against Michigan.
Fast forward and he is starting again. In the little time he has seen the field, he has shown that he is good in coverage. He can keep up with some receivers and is big enough for the tight ends. He should be able to hold up in run support and make some clean tackles.
With all that said, the reason why I am worried about this position is because this is arguably the most important position on the defense. After A.J. Edds and Pat Angerer graduated, Iowa still had the monstrous defensive line of Adrian Clayborn, Mike Daniels, Christian Ballard, and Karl Klug, yet the defense didn’t perform well. That’s because they missed Edds and Angerer.
Alston has been groomed his whole career for the middle linebacker spot and he is ready to step in, but Perry is still young and has limited experience. When Edds and Angerer left, they had no one to fill those roles as effectively. The teams could easily pass on them and when Iowa switched to dime formations, they could just run all over Iowa. When Iowa has effective linebackers, their defense is one of the top in the nation, but when they don’t, that’s when things start to fall off.
I don’t want to sound too negative as there hasn’t been anything to point to Perry being bad or anything. He is being coached by the linebacker coaches of the year in LeVar Woods and Jim Reid, so he should be a very good option. I honestly have no idea what to expect from Perry, he could be tremendous or he might not be ready to start in the Big Ten yet. If I had to guess, he is probably in between. Not the best, nor the worst, just average.
Cole Fisher (#36, Junior, 6-foot-2, 233 pounds, Millard North HS (Millard, NE)
Right now Fisher is the back-up to Perry and Spearman. He hasn’t played too much, only registering one tackle his whole career so he is a bit of an unknown. The coaching staff seems to like him and have said he has played well this spring. He backs up both of the outside linebacker positions, meaning that the coaching staff believes that he is the next best linebacker and the next man in. The outside linebacker position is definitely not set in stone and we may see him rise up and start in August. He is a bit of an unknown at this point, just like many of Iowa’s linebackers.
John Kenny (#47, Freshman (RS), 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Carmel (IN) HS)
Kenny enrolled at Iowa early and took part of the spring practices when he was a true freshman. He then redshirted all of last season learning behind the linebackers. Right now he is Alston’s back up and looks to be the heir to the middle linebacker position. Since he hasn’t played a minute for the Iowa team, we don’t know what he can do. We won’t see much of him as Alston is an established starter but he will see mop duty and we will get a glimpse of what he offers to the team.