IOWA CITY, Iowa — As a true freshman last August, Amani Jones made a strong push for the starting weakside linebacker job through the final week of training camp.
The hard-nosed and more experienced Bo Bower won the position, but Jones saw significant action on special teams. He played in all 13 games and recorded 1 tackle. It was quite a jump for the 6-foot, 235-pound player from Chicago who missed most of his senior season in high school with an injury.
“I learned a lot. Right now, I’m still learning,” Jones said. He said he is trying to “suck in some more information and try to compete and put the stars on their heels. Because they’ve got some guys under them that want to play.”
Iowa had a full-out competition last August for the second inside linebacker role alongside veteran Josey Jewell. Originally, Aaron Mends was slated to open at weakside linebacker, but Bower and Jones hung around until the end of camp. Eventually, Bower — now a senior — won the job. Jones moved into the No. 2 slot during this spring.
The coaching staff elected to use Jones and other true freshman linebacker Kristian Welch on special teams last fall rather than redshirt either player. Linebacker coach Seth Wallace said that will help both players if they see action on defense this year.
“They walked into Kinnick and they ran down on kickoffs and they’re out there on punt returns,” Wallace said. “So I think from an anxiety standpoint, they’ve probably curbed that a little bit. Going into this year, if you were to throw them out there, if they had to go into the game at the linebacker position, assuming they were prepared, I don’t think they would have those jitters that maybe somebody else would having not gone down on kickoff last year or played 70-plus reps on special teams.”
Jones, now a sophomore, and Mends, a junior. remain competitive in the weight room as well. Mends holds the team squat record for inside linebackers at 610 pounds. Jones said he wants to top that mark.
“I want to be on the board,” Jones said.
The reserve linebackers have pushed for playing time, which Wallace said has forced the current starters to improve as well.
“It’s competitive, but at the end of the day we all want the same thing,” Jones said. “We all know and we all trust coach Wallace and coach [Phil] Parker and coach [Kirk] Ferentz on who they’re going to choose to be their guy to play. So it’s just more of us as a linebacker group getting better and doing what we’re supposed to do and helping out the defense.”
Jones came to Iowa after a historically successful high school career. As a junior, he was an all-state linebacker with Chicago Phillips Academy, which became only the third Chicago Public League squad ever to play for the state title. Then during Jones’ senior year, Phillips won the CPL’s first state championship in a 51-7 victory against Belleville Althoff in the Class 4A title game.
“Senior year, we were determined,” Jones said. “I guess we wanted it more. The feeling was nice. Most of our team was like, ‘We want to accomplish this. You know how big that would be? The only public school to win a state championship? That’s in the record books, until somebody does that again.’ I don’t think they will. To us, it was like we can be in the record book. The history of Phillips and everyone around the neighborhood, they were rooting for us. We had so much support. It was awesome.”
There was some culture shock for Jones when he arrived on Iowa’s campus last summer for workouts. It took him some time to relax and put his guard down in Iowa City after growing up in Chicago.
“The campus is so friendly,” he said. “Like where I’m from, I’m not used to it being that friendly. Like when you’re that friendly to me, I feel like you want something from me. The campus gave me a different approach to everything. I think I can ease up a little bit.”
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