- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Iowa linebacker James Morris doesn't go along with the status quo. Unless he thinks it's 1985.
This spring, Morris conducted what he called a "social experiment," sporting a neatly cropped mustache, more Zorro than Selleck. His Hawkeyes teammates are big fans, his coaches have warmed up to it and even his girlfriend approves, "though she wants to deny it," he said.
"I'm trying it out," Morris told ESPN.com. "It's about the only time you can have a mustache like this. You won't get fired and your boss won't give you [stuff]."
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, who serves as Morris' football boss, has no issue with Morris' 'stache nor his career path to this point. Ferentz, who frequently consults Iowa's recent history when discussing players or teams, likened the progression this spring of Morris and fellow linebacker Christian Kirksey to that of former Hawkeyes stars Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge.
Greenway and Hodge, who played alongside one another from 2002-05, occupy two of the top five spots on Iowa's career tackles chart. (Hodge is third with 453, Greenway is fifth with 416.) Hodge led Iowa in tackles in each of his final three seasons, and he and Greenway own two of the top three single-season tackles totals. (Hodge had 158 stops and Greenway had 156 in 2005.) Both were two-time first-team All-Big Ten selections before moving onto to the NFL. Greenway made his first Pro Bowl last year with the Vikings.
Ferentz isn't putting Morris and Kirksey in the Greenway-Hodge category just yet, but he notes that the linebackers have followed similar paths. Both Morris and Kirksey saw action during their freshman year -- the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Morris made six starts at middle linebacker and recorded 70 tackles -- and they shared the team tackles lead with 110 stops apiece in 2011.
"If you talk about Hodge and Greenway, both of these guys are in that same position," Ferentz said, "except we had the ability to redshirt both Chad and Abdul, whereas James and Chris hit the ground running."
Iowa would be thrilled if Morris and Kirksey could emulate what Greenway and Hodge did, but the juniors are interested in forming their own legacy.
"I wouldn’t say Chris and I are trying to be like Hodge or Greenway," Morris said. "A lot of people tailor their game or they try to look at the style of players who have played before them and see what they can pick up. Chris has done that, and I've done that a little bit, but we're just trying to be the best players we can be."
Iowa needs a lot from both men this season. The defense took a step back in 2011, finishing 60th nationally in yards allowed and 46th in points allowed, and has the youngest group of linemen in recent memory.
The unit's strength, at least heading into the fall, is in the back seven and particularly at linebacker. Both Morris and Kirksey moved around a bit last season but seem pretty settled entering 2012: Morris will play middle linebacker with Kirksey on the strong side. Junior Anthony Hitchens is the projected starter at the weakside position.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Kirksey is a speed player who also can lower the boom as a hitter.
"He's really got a good pop to him," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "He can run well. It puts him in a position whereas guys see him being a leader, stepping up and making plays. They're expecting him to lead, and I'm sure that's what he wants to do. Same thing with James. James is no question the inside guy you want in there."
Ferentz called Kirksey a "really positive, upbeat, high-energy player." Those qualities drew Iowa to him during the recruiting process and have helped him earn the respect and admiration of his teammates.
Morris, thrust into a vital position as a true freshman, is comfortable handling responsibility, saying, "I'm hoping to be the leader of the defense, the man in the middle."
Ferentz gave both linebackers high marks during the spring.
"They're really confident, much more so than a year ago because they've had that experience," he said. "I'm not saying it's Hodge and Greenway, but they're a little bit like them. They have good personalities, and they're both really good players who have totally invested and have a good vibe with their teammates."