IOWA CITY – As the Iowa football team prepares for Saturday’s game at Indiana, Kristian Welch finds himself right back where he started.
The junior is expected to be the Hawkeyes’ starting middle linebacker in the 11 a.m. game against the Hoosiers, the same position he was listed at when Iowa began searching for a replacement for Josey Jewell at the start of spring drills.
Welch hadn’t taken a snap at middle linebacker this fall until the final minute of last week’s game at Minnesota, making three starts at weakside linebacker and backing up at the weakside and outside positions a week ago after Nick Niemann was sidelined by an injury.
He has also put his pass-coverage skills to work in Iowa’s nickel package.
Five games in, three positions played and now right back where he started in April, Welch is ready to go to work this week.
“I’m just going to go out and do my best,’’ Welch said. “My high school coach (Scott Erickson) always said you should never get nervous. You should be anxious to display what you prepared for and what you worked so hard for.’’
With that in mind, the Iola, Wisconsin, native is preparing to put his 6-foot-3, 238-pound size and quickness to work.
“I love contact and there is no better place for it than at middle linebacker,’’ Welch said. “I’m looking forward to doing whatever I can do to help the team.’’
This week, that means moving back to the middle.
Jack Hockaday, who has started the last four games at middle linebacker, suffered a knee injury during the first half of the win at Minnesota and isn’t expected to return until next.
His back-up, Amani Jones, was ejected because of a targeting penalty in the final minute of the game with the Golden Gophers, and will be required to spend the first half of the game against Indiana in the locker room.
That all combined to lead Welch back to middle linebacker, where Jones won the starting job for the season opener against Northern Illinois with his work in fall camp and where Hockaday emerged during his senior fall camp.
The fallout from all that in fall camp was the move Welch made to the weakside position, where he has made three starts.
His combination of size and quickness make him a candidate to fill any of the three linebacker positions and Welch has been a willing participant.
His return to middle linebacker may be shortlived and performance will likely dictate who is on the field at the position to start the second half.
“Kristian is going to start the game and we’re counting on him to play well,’’ Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We’ll see how it goes, but it will be nice to have him available. We’re thin right now.’’
Welch said he is prepared to deal with whatever comes his way.
“Wherever I’m needed, I’ll go,’’ Welch said. “That’s always been the way I’ve approached it.’’
Welch has been productive throughout the season. He leads Iowa with 14 solo tackles and is third on the team with 27 total tackles on the year, work that includes one sack, one fumble forced and one fumble recovery.
He said moving between spots on special teams over time helped prepare him for the shuffles he has made this fall.
“You’ve got to come into it with the right mindset. I come in thinking that I’m just going to go to work each day,’’ Welch said. “Whatever coach has for me, as far as the game plan, I’m going to try to execute it the best I can. That’s personally how I have kind of approached each and every day.’’
He likes the physical nature of the middle linebacker position, where his duties include making calls to prepare defensive linemen and the other linebackers for what is expected from the opposing offense based on their personnel and alignment.
He’s working with Djimon Colbert, preparing for his third start at weakside linebacker, to get everyone on the same page.
“I’m willing to go wherever, but I do like it inside,’’ Welch said. “Hit guys, get off and then find the ball.’’
That won’t change this week, and neither will Welch’s mindset about his latest opportunity.
“Guys get banged up, Amani gets a targeting penalty, whatever it is, you’ve got to kind of put the fire out. Step in and be able to take on the challenge,’’ Welch said. “The biggest change for me right now is being back at a spot I haven’t been at for six weeks.’’