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2011 Iowa position breakdowns: Linebackers (premium)

Posted on 10. Aug, 2011 by in Iowa Football

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*Every day this week, HawkeyeDrive.com will be previewing the 2011 version of the Iowa Hawkeyes position-by-position. In Part Five of our seven-part series, we will break down the Hawkeye linebackers. Click here for Parts One, Two, Three and Four.*

By Brendan Stiles

HawkeyeDrive.com

Injuries hampered Iowa’s linebacking corps in 2010 to the point that seven started at least one game last season and eight different combinations were used to start 13 games. In fact, there were only three games all season were last year’s projected starters were on the field together.

Three of those seven linebackers have moved on, including three-year starter Jeremiha Hunter, who led the Hawkeye defense with 90 tackles last season. With that in mind, the depth may be there again at the position, but the concerns are plentiful.

Two players who will be called upon to lead the way are senior Tyler Nielsen and sophomore James Morris. Nielsen started the first eight games of last season before a neck injury sidelined him the rest of the way. He ended up finishing his junior season with 42 tackles and an interception, which came in the Hawkeyes’ 35-7 win over Iowa State.

One revealing comment made by both head coach Kirk Ferentz and linebackers coach Darrell Wilson is they both believe Nielsen is further along at this point in his career than former linebacker A.J. Edds, who started at the same spot for three seasons before being selected by the Miami Dolphins in the 2010 NFL Draft.

“He could’ve played for us when A.J. was here. A.J. was A.J., but Tyler is as talented,” Wilson said. “I really believe he runs as well, plays as well in space. He’s a big, strong, physical young man.

“He was having a really good year… a great year. It really took the wind out of all of us, including Tyler, when he went down.”

Morris, meanwhile, will be looking to build off a freshman campaign where he ended up finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 70. The Solon native made his debut in the defense during Iowa’s game against Penn State and wound up starting the Hawkeyes’ final six games of 2010 at middle linebacker, including their 27-24 win over Missouri in the 2010 Insight Bowl.

“It will be a lot different, going from where I virtually had no experience and very minimal knowledge to going into a season and getting to play a very substantial amount,” Morris said. “I’m more comfortable, and hopefully come kickoff, I’ll be even more comfortable then.”

Also returning from a serious injury is senior linebacker Bruce Davis, who did start Iowa’s opener last year against Eastern Illinois at middle linebacker. Davis tore his right ACL during a special teams play in the Hawkeyes’ 34-27 loss to Arizona on Sept. 18.

Now returning for his final season and seeing Morris in front of him, Davis is eager to leave one final lasting impression at Iowa.

“I’m ready to go,” Davis said. “I’ve been working hard all offseason and ready to help the team out as best I can, and ready to just get back playing at a high level and just giving my all.

“I feel healthy though. I feel 100 percent.”

The competition to watch has taken place at weakside linebacker, which was the spot on the defense occupied by Hunter the last three seasons. A pair of sophomores who saw their redshirts burned in 2010 — Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens — are battling to start alongside Nielsen and Morris.

Kirksey enters this season listed at 6-2, 215 pounds, while Hitchens is at 6-1, 224 pounds. Both contributed on special teams for the Hawkeyes in 2010. Hitchens had nine tackles in 10 games, while Kirksey had six tackles in 11 games.

The preseason 2-deep shows Kirksey ahead of Hitchens, but this competition probably won’t be decided until Iowa’s opening game against Tennessee Tech on Sept. 3.

“We’re basically pushing each other to go forward,” Kirksey said. “We don’t know right now what’s going to happen, so we’re going to make sure we give it all we got and make sure we’re doing the things we have to do to improve with the team.”

Right now, the biggest concern for the Hawkeyes will be whether the depth in place this season can all stay healthy. If it can, the linebacking corps is a unit that should look better, thus allowing the defense to maybe look better as well.

“I feel like if we’re healthy, we’re a pretty good unit,” Davis said. “Last year, we took a big loss with injuries and things like that. Being able to have that depth back is a big help to our team.”

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