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2013 Iowa position breakdowns: Linebackers

Posted on 14. Aug, 2013 by in Iowa Football

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*This week, HawkeyeDrive.com presents an eight-part series of position breakdowns as the Iowa Hawkeyes continue preparing for the 2013 season. After previously focusing on quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends, the offensive line and defensive line, our sixth part examines the team’s corps of linebackers.*

By Brendan Stiles

HawkeyeDrive.com

The biggest strength of Iowa’s defense entering the 2013 season is its linebacking corps and for good reason. Not only are the Hawkeyes starting a trio of fourth-year seniors in James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens, but this is the second straight season these three guys will be out there together anchoring the defense.

Morris and Kirksey found themselves seeing the field regularly as sophomores in 2011, playing alongside then-senior linebacker Tyler Nielsen. At one point that season, Kirksey made the switch from the WILL position (weak-side) to the LEO spot (strong-side) and has played there ever since. As for Morris, he played at both the MIKE (middle) and WILL spots during his sophomore campaign and ended up settling at MIKE last year, allowing the Hawkeyes to make room for Hitchens.

In Iowa’s defensive scheme, the most likely player to lead the entire team in tackles (barring significant injury, of course) is the WILL ‘backer. Prior to any of these three guys taking the field, former linebacker Jeremiha Hunter was regularly leading the Hawkeyes in tackles while playing at the WILL position. Then in 2011, Kirksey and Morris split time there and the two of them ended up tying for the team-lead in tackles.

Last year, Hitchens emphatically followed down that same path. Not only were his 124 tackles in 2012 a team-high, but that mark was good enough to lead the entire Big Ten. He attributed part of that to the two guys he plays alongside, mainly because of the tone they set being leaders not just of the defense, but the entire team.

In fact, Hitchens said he spent most of this offseason trying to emulate Morris as much as possible.

“James helps me out a lot and I’m actually following him to become a better leader,” Hitchens said. “The whole summer, he probably didn’t realize it, but everything he did, I tried to match. Through the film room, breaking huddles, bringing it up. Stuff like that just to try and get better.”

As for Morris, he compiled 113 tackles last year despite dealing with a groin injury that kept him from maximizing his potential as a junior. He has battled injuries for most of the last two seasons, but refuses to use them as an excuse.

What drives Morris is what he described as “The Pursuit of Perfection.” For him, it’s the single motivator for him making his game better each time out on the gridiron.

“There’s always little things, whether it’s your position in pass coverage or your pad level when you’re making contact, or where you are when you’re flowing on run plays, whether it’s a run scheme or a gap scheme and fitting in the right place,” Morris said. “I mean, there’s a million little things that you’re always focused on.

“But for me, when you go out there and you know you’ve had an issue or there’s something that a coach said, ‘Hey, we can fix this. This can help us,’ you just sort of pick that one thing that day and try to improve upon that.”

Then there’s Kirksey. Playing at LEO has given him more responsibility, but that responsibility hasn’t appeared to slow him down. Kirksey still managed to finish third on the team in tackles with 95 of them last year and he also managed to lead the Hawkeyes with four fumble recoveries and two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns in games against Minnesota and Indiana.

When asked about where he has made his most improvement, Kirksey said it’s simply a matter of gaining experience with each day he’s on the field.

“As you get older, things tend to slow down and you tend to get more comfortable,” Kirksey said. “My freshman year, I was so nervous. Now, I’m a little bit more relaxed.”

Looking beyond these three seniors, this group of linebackers has depth. Quinton Alston started last season’s game against Michigan. Travis Perry saw plenty of game action late in the season. And players like Marcus Collins and Cole Fisher are competing for reps. This is also a group that now has two assistants overseeing them — LeVar Woods enters his second season coaching linebackers and he is now working alongside Jim Reid, who previously was Virginia’s defensive coordinator.

Reid has quickly bought into Iowa’s defensive philosophy and believes the leadership of players like Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens has rubbed off on the guys behind them as well.

“These guys are all in,” Reid said. “I watch our guys and sit right beside them. When [Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz] speaks, they are riveted on his every word. His every word is good, it’s positive and that’s what these guys portray.”

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