April 01, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) Two years ago, Iowa's linebackers were the backbone of a team that exceeded modest expectations.

Last season, they were an issue for a team that fell short of its goals.

It'll be up to Jim Reid to shore up the middle of the Hawkeyes defense.

Reid will be on his own as Iowa's linebacker coach in 2015 after head coach Kirk Ferentz moved LeVar Woods over to work with the tight ends. The Hawkeyes have three sophomores listed as starters for spring practice, which began last week and will conclude on April 25.

''I'm not sure that it's going to be up as much as it's going to be consistent,'' Reid said about his unit's expected growth.

Iowa lost three linebackers who wound up spending time in the NFL prior to last season.

The inexperience crippled the Hawkeyes - even though they had a defensive line with three first- and second-team All-Big Ten players.

Iowa allowed more than 30 points four times last season and finished just 7-6. The Hawkeyes were repeatedly gashed by opposing rushing attacks - an obvious problem in a league so focused on running the ball - as its linebackers continually struggled to take the proper angles or tackle effectively in space.

''It's not all physical talent that allows you to make a (tackle for loss), to make a sack, to make a great play. It's having anticipation. It's reading the line of scrimmage. It's seeing the splits. It's knowing what the formation is. It's knowing what the down and distance is,'' Reid said. ''We all believe that we're heading in the right direction with this crowd, and it's a fun crowd to coach because they are into it big time.''

Despite their uneven play, Iowa's young linebackers also showed promise in 2014.

Bo Bower went from walk-on to starter as a freshman, recording 38 tackles, and is working out on the weak side this spring.

Josey Jewell, who has since moved to middle linebacker, was a bright spot in the miserable bowl game showing for Iowa, recording a game-high 14 tackles.

''What we are trying to do now is have all the positions be fluid, so we can go from inside to outside. There's a lot of shifting that goes on,'' Reid said.

Ben Neimann, the rare true freshman to see playing time for Ferentz, blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown in Iowa's 48-7 blowout of Northwestern.

Bower, Jewell and Neimann are atop the depth chart for now, followed by seniors Cole Fisher and Travis Perry.

The Hawkeyes are also working in redshirt freshmen Aaron Mends and Jameer Outsey as weak side linebackers this spring, and Reid said both are ''really good prospects.''

''Mends is a fast twitch, quick player who has got electric feet. He's got a giant heart. He's got tremendous focus and he's a tough guy,'' Reid said. ''(Outsey is) tough, can run very, very well.''

Iowa was hit hard by graduation up front, so the Hawkeyes will likely need their linebackers to be more prepared to make plays than they were a year ago.

Reid is confident his players will be ready by the end of August.

''I think we are going to be playing hard. We're going to be physical and we've got to make more plays. And I think we've got the guys to be able to do it,'' Reid said.

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Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP

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