The Iowa Hawkeyes will almost certainly be represented in the Chiefs’ starting lineup at inside linebacker this weekend in Cleveland. Exactly which former Hawkeye lines up across the line of scrimmage from Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and starts barking out signals seems a little less certain.
Starting inside linebacker and leading tackler Anthony Hitchens, a former Iowa standout who has started every game this season for the Chiefs, returned to practice on Thursday. But his availability for Sunday’s game remains a question mark after he came out of last weekend’s win over the Denver Broncos with bruised ribs.
If Hitchens can’t play, the next man in the pecking order would be an undrafted rookie linebacker out of Iowa: Ben Niemann.
“This week we’ll see how Hitch is doing and kind of just take that same approach, just be ready if my number is called,” Niemman said. “Then, if not, play special teams and contribute wherever I can to help the team.”
Niemann, an Illinois native and the son of Rutgers University defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jay Niemann, has played primarily on special teams this season and remained at the ready in case he was needed to step in for Hitchens or teammate Reggie Ragland.
Niemann has played just 14 defensive snaps this season: nine two weeks ago against the Cincinnati Bengals and five last week against the Broncos.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Niemann beat out Ukeme Eligwe for the final inside linebacker spot during the preseason. He led the team in tackles in the Chiefs’ preseason opener against the Houston Texans and returned an interception for a touchdown in the second preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons.
“Ben is one of the hardest-working people in this building, period,” Ragland said. “He does what he has to do. He does everything the coaches ask him to do on top of knowing the game plan each week. Ben’s a hell of a player. I’m excited for him to get out there and play if Hitch doesn’t go.”
General manager Brett Veach said at the end of the preseason that multiple teams approached the Chiefs about trading for Niemann.
“Ben did a really good job in preseason — that’s when we obviously saw him the most,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “But every time he’s gone in, whether in a preseason game, practice, whatever, he’s a very reliable, very dependable, tough-minded guy. He loves to compete. He brings a lot of those attributes that are associated with the Iowa program, being tough and aggressive and all-out. I think that will serve him well. We feel pretty good about Ben.”
The irony of the coach’s-kid label that almost always gets attached to Niemann — Chiefs coach Andy Reid trotted it out when referencing Niemann earlier this week — is that the current NFL linebacker whose father has coached for more than three decades never actually had his father as a coach. Well, not in football, anyway.
Niemann said his father coached him in baseball but never officially coached him in football because of his schedule coaching his own teams. Of course, in the offseasons, Jay was able to help out here and there as a resource if Ben had questions or needed advice about “football-related things.”
As far as the label itself, Niemann chuckled about the idea of a coach’s son supposedly picking things up quicker or having the same mindset as his parent.
He has heard it all. In some cases it’s true, and in others it’s not.
“I loved it growing up just being around his practices or riding the team bus, getting to do all those little things that came with it,” Niemann said. “I enjoyed it a lot, and now still (enjoy) following him wherever he’s at and his team. It’s been fun.”
As far as Niemann’s predisposition to playing linebacker — you know, which presumably got imprinted in his DNA because his father played and coaches the position — Niemann actually starred as a high school wide receiver. Even at Iowa, when he moved to linebacker, he played a hybrid position between outside linebacker and nickel, called the “Leo.”
Similarl to rookie linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, Niemann’s duties included covering slot receivers at times. Niemann played middle linebacker during one game as a senior, and he recorded 11 tackles against Northwestern.
Since coming into the NFL, Niemann has actually been making a transition from outside linebacker to inside. He compared the difference to being in “two different worlds.” He’s quickly learned the importance of things such as pad level, footwork and his eyes: what he sees, and when he sees it.
“You’ve just got to get experience and reps at it,” Niemann said. “Then it kind of comes along with that.”