IOWA CITY -- The Hawkeyes started the season with two seniors and a junior at the three linebacker spots. Going into this weekend, it's freshman, fifth-year senior reserve and . . . really good question.
"We'll see who is healthy today and who can do what," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday.
Iowa's linebackers had been hit hard by injury in the last two weeks, but it took its hardest hit Tuesday when Ferentz said junior outside linebacker Tyler Nielsen would miss "weeks" with a neck injury.
Sources told The Gazette there is a break, but the extent is unknown. Nielsen, a 6-foot-4, 235-pounder from Humboldt, left after a play in the first half last Saturday against Michigan State. He returned to the Iowa bench in gym clothes to watch the game and then gingerly jogged off the field.
The fact that Nielsen was up and moving around is a positive sign, but, as you can imagine, the utmost caution will be taken with even the slightest crack in a vertebrae.
"It's a tough thing," Ferentz said. "It's a tough loss for us. First and foremost, it's tough on Tyler. As an individual he wants to play out there, it means an awful lot to him. He's going to be out for a while. We have to try to get through that. It's tough. We'll just see what happens here."
Nielsen was Iowa's last uninjured starter from the first whistle in camp in early August.
Senior middle linebacker Jeff Tarpinian suffered a broken hand in camp and then a neck/shoulder stinger kept him out of most of three games. He returned last week and played in passing situations. Senior weakside linebacker Jeremiha Hunter suffered a knee injury against Wisconsin and missed last week's game. Ferentz said he could return to practice Tuesday and go from there.
In Iowa's 37-6 victory over Michigan State last week, true freshman James Morris and redshirt freshman Shane DiBona started at the inside spots. When Nielsen left, fifth-year senior walk-on Ross Petersen entered the game.
As the No. 15 Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) travel to Indiana (4-5, 0-4), it's a fluid situation.
"That's one of Iowa's things, the next man in," strong safety Tyler Sash said. "We had a lot of guys check into the game Saturday and they did fine. Now, they have a week to prepare and get their feet on the ground. They should be ready."
Morris, a 6-2, 215-pounder, will be the middle linebacker. Yes, he's fresh out of Solon High School, but he's been around the Iowa football program for years. His stepdad, Greg, is Iowa's equipment manager.
The plan all along for Morris was to play special teams this season instead of sitting out as a redshirt. Just before camp, he was switched to middle linebacker, where linebackers coach Darrell Wilson thought he'd be the No. 3.
As a true freshman, Morris is off limits for interviews. He talked to The Gazette this summer for the male athlete of the year story.
Here, he talks about his first day going through 7-on-7s.
"The first day was awful. I felt like I did so bad," Morris said. "It was just such a reality shock from being ‘the guy’ to not being ‘the guy’ anymore . Not only do the coaches and players not respect you, they flat out don’t like you. They’re going out of their way to show you they don’t like you. You have to earn everything you’re going to get."
As of now, fifth-year senior Troy Johnson is listed as the starter on the weakside. Johnson came into the season as a career backup with one start. Now, he three starts so far. This would be his first on the weakside. Ferentz called him a candidate for the outside linebacker job, too.
DiBona could play it. True freshman Christian Kirksey has never played it and isn't a possibility.
Outside linebacker is the biggest question. Iowa asks its outside linebacker -- Iowa calls it "Leo" -- to play the strongside of a formation, usually over a tight end. Nielsen waited two seasons behind A.J. Edds, a Miami Dolphins draft pick, and was off to a terrific start (third on the team with 42 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, an interception and four passes broken up).
Right now, it's Petersen, a 6-3, 236-pound senior who's been moved back and forth from tight end. It could be Petersen. It could be Tarpinian. It could be Johnson. It very well could be senior Lance Tillison, who was the fourth linebacker in Iowa's 3-4 schemes last Saturday. It won't be converted tight end Dakota Getz, a freshman who's sidelined with an injury.
Ferentz was asked about outside linebacker. "You have Ross Petersen and then . . ."
"Yeah, and then," he said.As in, really good question.