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Iowa’s Djimon Colbert eyes starting middle linebacker spot

STEVE BATTERSON Quad-City TimesApril 7, 2019

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Djimon Colbert arrived at Iowa as a hard-hitting safety.

He’s lined up and cornerback and weakside linebacker since and now has his eyes on a spot in the heart of the Hawkeye linebacking corps.

The 6-foot-1, 235-pound sophomore sees possibilities at middle linebacker, one of the positions he is getting a look at as Iowa mixes and matches personnel during spring practices.

“It’s a position where I can see myself playing at some point in my career,’’ Colbert said. “If not now, in the future, it’s something I’d like take on. We all found out last year that flexibility is pretty important.’’

Iowa started five different combinations at linebacker in its first six games a year ago and loses only Jack Hockaday, a nine-game starter at middle linebacker, from the depth which led the Hawkeyes to a 9-4 record in 2018.

“It’s been different in the room this spring,’’ junior linebacker Nick Niemann said. “A year ago, nobody had started and we were all learning everything. Now, that experience is making a difference.’’

He said the tempo in practice has been faster and the learning curve has been condensed, something Colbert agrees with as well.

“We’re all getting reps at every position right now and the coaches are looking at a lot of different combinations,’’ Colbert said. “It’s pretty competitive, which I think is a good thing for all of us. We’re getting after it when we get our chances.’’

That competition has increased in part because of Iowa’s changing approach on defense.

The frequent use of Amani Hooker at a hybrid linebacker/safety position the Hawkeyes now call “cash’’ in its alignment left just two linebackers on the field much of last season and it’s a look Iowa remains committed to as it works toward 2019.

The Hawkeyes are still taking reps in the traditional three-linebacker alignment, but Iowa players understand that two-linebacker looks are also being put under the microscope as the team works this spring.

“The way things are shaking out, there are going to be times, probably more times, when there are just two of us out there so it does have everybody competing at a higher level this spring,’’ Colbert said. “You don’t want to get left out of the mix.’’

Senior Kristian Welch tops the spring depth chart at middle linebacker, with Colbert listed on top at weakside and Niemann topping Iowa’s depth at outside linebacker.

Redshirt freshman Dillon Doyle at middle, senior Amani Jones at weakside and junior Barrington Wade outside are among the competition that includes redshirt freshmen Jayden McDonald and Seth Benson.

“We’re trying to find the best two, knowing that last year we needed our best four, five with some of the injuries,’’ Iowa linebackers assistant Seth Wallace said. “It’s not always going to be like it was in ’17 when you run the race with three guys.’’

Wallace is trying to keep his players on top of their games, mixing reps regularly in hopes of keeping players sharp and ready at each position.

At 6-foot-1 and having gained 18 pounds to the 235 he now plays at, Colbert started 10 games a year ago at weakside, recording 52 tackles after moving up from the secondary a year ago.

“I felt pretty good there last year, felt at home,’’ Colbert said. “It was a new situation for me at first, but it was something I got accustomed to pretty quickly. I feel comfortable and I feel capable.’’

He feels the same about the looks he has gotten this spring at middle linebacker.

“Once you have that confidence, you know where you’re supposed to go and you know what gap you’re supposed to be in,’’ Colbert said. “You can just go play.’’

The biggest differences Colbert sees as he lines up now compared to the safety spot he initially filled for the Hawkeyes comes is simply a matter of location and communication.

“I’m getting used to being in there, seeing the field in a narrower view from being the box where it can be a little more crowded,’’ Colbert said. “It’s a matter of repetitions and getting used to that. I like being in the middle of the action. I can see myself being pretty effective there.’’

The middle linebacker spot is also communication heavy, the quarterback of the defense in terms of recognition and communicating signals before the snap.

“There is a lot of responsibility with that. (Hockaday) did a good job with that last year and ultimately, that’s where I’d like to be,’’ Colbert said.

“That starts with continuing to work and learn and being able to recognize what I’m seeing and make the right calls at the right time. To me, it’s the next challenge and one I’m ready to take on.’’

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