Big Ten: Anthony Hitchens

B1G media day preview: Iowa

July, 15, 2014
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Big Ten media days arrive in just less than two weeks on July 28. But we can hardly wait for the event and the season to arrive, so we’ll get you ready in the coming days by identifying three pressing questions that each league squad will face at media days, along with their possible answers.

Next up on the list is Iowa, which is bringing left tackle Brandon Scherff, defensive tackle Carl Davis and running back Mark Weisman along with coach Kirk Ferentz to talk about a program looking to compete for a title in the West Division.

1. Are the Hawkeyes legitimate contenders in the league?

No team is going to rule itself out of the race before the season even begins, so an affirmative response from the Hawkeyes should come as no surprise. But after largely spending the last few years outside of the spotlight and with relatively modest expectations, Iowa will be generating a decent amount of attention as a dark-horse pick to compete in the remodeled divisional lineup this fall. The Hawkeyes might have been undervalued for what they accomplished during an eight-win campaign in 2013, and just how strongly they make their case as potential contenders could speak volumes about how much confidence there is in Iowa City.

2. Is there a possible No. 1 draft pick anchoring the line?

Even with returning stars such as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Ohio State's Braxton Miller around to headline the event, Scherff could wind up stealing the most attention in Chicago. There's already growing hype about the lofty draft projections for the senior lineman after he decided to come back for one more season with Iowa, and that decision will likely bring several questions about why he elected to put off a move to the next level. Scherff will no doubt have several chances to address that matter and his draft stock, and at the same time he might provide a useful advertisement for Ferentz and the program on the value of sticking around at Iowa.

3. Can the defense reload?

Replacing the experience of a group of linebackers with more than 100 collective starts is no small challenge. And considering the amount of production Iowa received from Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and James Morris as they combined for more than 1,000 tackles during their careers, the task only looks more daunting. Iowa thrived last season in no small part because they allowed less than 19 points per game and finished second in the Big Ten in total defense, so finding replacements for those veteran linebackers is going to be critical -- not to mention what appears to be open competition for a couple starting jobs in the secondary. Having a proven veteran up front in Davis is certainly a nice foundation, and he could provide an early assessment of the new faces around him in the lineup ahead of training camp.
The biggest non-game on the American sporting calendar is all done, as the 2014 NFL draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in New York. After arguably its worst draft in the modern era in 2013, the Big Ten performed better this year with 30 picks. Still, the league finished fourth among conferences in selections, trailing the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34).

After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.

Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).

FIRST ROUND (4)
[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTaylor Lewan was the first Big Ten player selected, going 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Analysis: Click here for my first-round thoughts

SECOND ROUND (6)
Analysis: Hageman ends up in a really good spot with the Falcons. Although Latimer had an excellent pre-draft performance, it wasn't surprising to see him end up in the middle of the second round. Hyde waited longer than many anticipated, but he enters a great situation with a team that loves to play power football. Robinson joins a new-look Jaguars passing attack featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Marqise Lee.

THIRD ROUND (6)
Analysis: Everyone had Southward going before Borland, right? Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, had an exceptional college career, but concerns about his height and perhaps his injury history moved him down the draft boards. The Iowa Effect shows up here as both Fiedorowicz and Kirksey were swept up by teams that respect what the Hawkeyes do. What does it say that Michigan's offensive line struggled mightily in 2013 but had two tackles drafted in the first three rounds? Those young Wolverines linemen had better step up this fall.

FOURTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: Some really good pickups in this round, especially White, who will fit in very well with New England's offense. Although James Morris received the most accolades among Iowa's linebackers at the college level, both Kirksey and Hitchens were mid-round selections, while Morris went undrafted and signed with New England as a free agent. As a Chicago Bears fan, I love the Vereen pick. He's a smart, athletic versatile player who knows from his older brother what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

FIFTH ROUND (5)
[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis isn't venturing far from Madison as he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Analysis: Like his teammate Borland, Abbrederis had a much longer wait than expected but lands in a very familiar spot with Green Bay. I think he's a steal and will surprise people with his ability to make plays despite less-than-ideal measurables. Pamphile had a fairly quiet college career but is seen as a project and could develop into a better pro. Urschel is another player who lacks the ideal physical traits sought in the NFL, but could make up for it with exceptional intelligence.

SIXTH ROUND (1)
Analysis: Enunwa complemented his superb blocking skills with big-play ability in the pass game as a senior. He's a good value for a Jets team that needs to boost the league's 31st-ranked pass offense.

SEVENTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: All four players could be very good values. Bolser is an athletic tight end who had 15 career touchdown catches. Allen showed versatility as a senior, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. Gallon heads to a Patriots team that has had success with smaller, productive receivers. Bryant likely would have been selected higher if not for major leg and ankle injuries last season.

Here are the draft picks per B1G team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Michigan: 3
Penn State: 3
Nebraska: 3
Iowa: 3
Purdue: 2
Minnesota: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan State: 1

The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.

Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- There are certain positions that always worry fans and others that generate a full, almost blind faith, no matter who's coming or going. Iowa's linebacker corps is one of the latter.

[+] EnlargeQuinton Alston
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesQuinton Alston (right) is settling into a leadership role on Iowa's defense.
No James Morris, Anthony Hitchens or Christian Kirksey? We'll be fine, Iowa fans have repeatedly said since the 2013 season ended. They point to Hawkeyes history, especially under coach Kirk Ferentz, as evidence that the team always finds ways to firm up the nerve center of its defense.

Quinton Alston loves their confidence. He's confident, too.

"We have three great guys like that, and for them to leave and the fans still think we can step into those roles even through we're quote-unquote inexperienced, that's a great honor," Alston recently told ESPN.com. "I love the tradition here."

Alston intends to continue it this fall as he steps into a leading role at middle linebacker, a spot Morris occupied for most of the past three seasons. Iowa is replacing more production at linebacker than any team in the Big Ten, and there are unknowns, like who will replace Kirksey's speed, energy and willingness to sacrifice his body.

But one question coaches aren't asking is who will lead the group.

The 6-foot-1, 232-pound Alston has 24 tackles in 29 career games but boasts only one start, back in 2012. He was undoubtedly Iowa's No. 4 linebacker last season, but the Hawkeyes' starters rarely left the field.

"We all felt like if something had happened where if we had to take James out or shift James to one of the other linebacker positions, Quinton would have been the next guy in the game," Ferentz said. "He grew up more than anything, developed a confidence level about himself and practiced at a real high rate. He's ready to go."

The turning point for Alston, according to Ferentz, came before spring practice in 2013. After appearing in six games as a true freshman in 2011, he had just five tackles in 10 games the next year and "had kind of stalled out a little bit," Ferentz said.

Even though Morris had a stranglehold on the top middle linebacker spot, Alston progressed well throughout the spring and continued to develop during the season. He excelled in practices and tried to maximize his time in games, working in third-down packages and on almost every special teams unit.

"When he was running with the twos, he took command of the huddle," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "That's what you need, to really understand you're controlling the defense. By doing that, his understanding of what he needs to do within the scheme has really helped him and improved this spring."

He learned a lot from the three starters, especially Morris. Their personalities "couldn't be any different," but the two academic All-Big Ten players bonded over the cerebral side of their position -- diagnosing plays and formations.

"If it was just us in the film room, he would tell me what he's looking at and what little details he can point out," Alston said. "James and Hitch, they would walk up the D-line and tell them, 'All right, watch out for this play.' And that would be the play they'd run."

Iowa's defensive line is likely the team's strongest unit and will anchor the defense this season. But linemen are noticing Alston's presence, and they're grateful for it.

"He communicates with everybody," defensive tackle Carl Davis said. "He makes sure everybody knows the new calls. If he sees something wrong with the front, he'll definitely let us know what we need to do.

"He's the linebacker, so he's in charge of the huddle."

It has been a long wait for Alston, a Sicklerville, N.J., native, who committed to Pitt as a recruit but changed to Iowa following a coaching change. But the value of patience isn't lost on the senior.

"It's not one day, you snap your fingers and you're a leader," he said. "Next to James and Hitch and Chris, I was trying to take on what they do as leaders and try to do what I could.

"They helped me out a lot. I think I can take it from here."

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."

Video: B1G shoes to fill, Iowa

March, 6, 2014
3/06/14
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Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett reports on how Iowa will replace James Morris and a crew of solid Hawkeyes linebackers.
The 2014 NFL scouting combine is all wrapped up, and the countdown to the draft has begun. Monday, we looked at how Big Ten offensive players performed in the key drills. Now it's time to see how the defenders -- linemen, linebackers and defensive backs -- fared in their testing. Here are the full results for each participant.

TOP PERFORMERS

[+] Enlarge Ryan Shazier
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteRyan Shazier finished first in the vertical jump among linebackers at the NFL scouting combine.
Overall (all positions)

  • Ohio State CB Bradley Roby finished seventh in the 40-yard dash at 4.39 seconds.
  • Ohio State C Corey Linsley tied for second in bench-press repetitions with 36; Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman tied for 10th with 32.
  • Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier ranked first in the vertical jump at 42 inches; Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste finished second at 41.5 inches.
  • Shazier ranked sixth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 10 inches; Jean-Baptiste tied for 10th at 10-8.
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson tied for ninth in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.0 seconds.
  • Robinson tied for ninth in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.36 seconds; Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis finished 12th at 11.39 seconds.
By position (linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties)

Safeties: Minnesota's Brock Vereen finished second in the 40-yard dash (4.47 seconds), first in bench-press repetitions (25), tied for 10th in vertical jump (34 inches), tied for 10th in broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches), second in three-cone drill (6.9 seconds) and second in 20-yard shuttle (4.07 seconds); Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis finished 11th in the 40-yard dash (4.6 seconds), tied for seventh in bench-press repetitions (15), tied for third in vertical jump (36.5 inches), fourth in broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches), tied for seventh in three-cone drill (7.05 seconds) and 11th in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds).

Linemen: Minnesota's Hageman tied for third in bench-press repetitions (32), tied for seventh in vertical jump (35.5 inches) and tied for 14th in broad jump (9 feet, 6 inches).

Linebackers: Iowa's Anthony Hitchens finished 15th in the 40-yard dash (4.74 seconds), tied for 11th in bench-press reps (23) and tied for seventh in three-cone drill (7.15 seconds); Michigan State's Max Bullough tied for first in bench-press reps (30), finished 15th in three-cone drill (7.22 seconds) and tied for 13th in 20-yard shuttle (4.3 seconds); Wisconsin's Chris Borland finished fifth in bench-press repetitions (27), 14th in three-cone drill (7.18 seconds) and 12th in 20-yard shuttle (4.27 seconds); Ohio State's Shazier tied for eighth in bench-press reps (25), finished first in vertical jump (42 inches), first in broad jump (10 feet, 10 inches), fifth in three-cone drill (6.91 seconds) and ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.21 seconds); Iowa's James Morris tied for 14th in vertical jump (34.5 inches) and seventh in three-cone drill (6.94 seconds); Iowa's Christian Kirksey tied for fifth in broad jump (10 feet, 2 inches).

Cornerbacks: Ohio State's Roby tied for fourth in 40-yard dash (4.39 seconds), tied for seventh in bench-press reps (17), tied for sixth in vertical jump (38.5 inches), tied for ninth in broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches) and tied for fifth in 20-yard shuttle (4.04 seconds); Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard tied for 13th in 40-yard dash (4.51 seconds) and tied for 13th in bench-press reps (15); Nebraska's Jean-Baptiste finished first in vertical jump (41.5 inches) and tied for third in broad jump (10 feet, 8 inches); Purdue's Ricardo Allen finished ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.15 seconds).

There were some good performances from Big Ten defenders, particularly from the Ohio State pair of Shazier and Roby, but also from Minnesota's Vereen and Nebraska's Jean-Baptiste, who both likely helped their draft stock. On offense, Penn State's Robinson certainly stood out, along with Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan and Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.

Check out all of ESPN.com's NFL draft coverage here.

Big Ten storylines at the NFL combine

February, 20, 2014
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The NFL scouting combine -- also known as the world's most dissected job interview session -- began Wednesday in Indianapolis, and workouts begin Saturday. The hopefuls include 36 players from Big Ten schools, 38 if you count Maryland and Rutgers.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsFormer Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter will work out as a receiver at the NFL scouting combine.
Here are some of the top storylines to watch as the league's contingents run, lift, jump and shuttle for NFL executives:

  • How many first-rounders can the Big Ten produce? Last year was arguably the worst draft in league history, as only one player -- Wisconsin's Travis Frederick -- heard his name called on opening night, and not until the 31st pick. The conference should definitely do better in the first round this year, with Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard widely viewed as locks to go early. Some others could work their way into the first round with strong showings in Indy, including Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman (whose physical-freak traits should translate well into workouts), Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, linebacker Ryan Shazier and running back Carlos Hyde and Penn State receiver Allen Robinson.
  • Speaking of Robinson, he's one of eight Big Ten players who will work out as a receiver, and that group includes ultra-productive college wideouts such as Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon and Indiana's Cody Latimer. This is viewed as a deep draft for receivers in general, so the Big Ten contingent will have to post good times in the 40 and other drills to stand out.
  • One player who will work out as a receiver is Northwestern's Kain Colter, who primarily played quarterback in college. Colter, of course, has been in the news because of his fight to unionize college football players. How will NFL general managers and executives view the stance taken by Colter, who should interview extremely well? And how will he perform as a wide receiver in drills?
  • Linebacker is probably the strongest group the Big Ten will send to Indianapolis, which is fitting because that was the best position group in the league in 2013. Many scouts already love Wisconsin's Chris Borland, but his height could remain an issue for some. I think his overall athleticism should shine through this weekend and relieve some of those questions. Michigan State's Max Bullough has excellent height and size, but faces some concerns over his lateral quickness and probably even more regarding his Rose Bowl suspension. Will Bullough publicly reveal the reason for his suspension? It will also be fun to see how Iowa's standout trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens compares in their testing.
  • Lewan figures to go in the top 15, but he does have some character issues to address in his interviews. Speaking of offensive linemen, how healthy is Nebraska All-American guard Spencer Long after his season-ending knee injury? Ohio State's Jack Mewhort was a great leader for the Buckeyes but must show he's athletic enough to play tackle in the NFL. And after interviewing Penn State's John Urschel, will some team ask him to skip his playing days and just run their front office?
  • Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz earned rave reviews at the Senior Bowl. While he wasn't hyper-productive in the passing game with the Hawkeyes, some team easily could fall in love with his size and athleticism and make him an early-round pick.
  • Defensive back is another deep group from the Big Ten, with seven players invited. Dennard simply needs to not hurt his stock, and Roby could improve his after a good, but not great, junior season. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste will be intriguing with his 6-foot-3 frame, especially after the success of the Seattle Seahawks' tall defensive backs. Guys such as Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis, Minnesota's Brock Vereen and Purdue's Ricardo Allen are viewed as late-round picks at this point; they need to make an impression and not lose any more ground in the eyes of scouts.


All these questions and more will begin to be answered this weekend.

B1G players invited to NFL combine

February, 7, 2014
2/07/14
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The official invite list for the 2014 NFL combine is out, and 36 Big Ten players will try to impress pro scouts during workouts in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. In case you were wondering, that's fourth most among conferences behind the SEC (71 invitees), the ACC (48) and the Pac-12 (45).

Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (2)

Wide receivers (8)

Tight ends (2)

Offensive linemen (8)

Defensive linemen (2)

Linebackers (7)

Defensive backs (7)

Specialists (0)

Breakdown
It's a strong list of players, but were there any snubs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen and Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery jump out right away as missing, though Martinez has injury (and position) concerns, while Allen's small frame means he'll have to prove to scouts he can play at the next level.

I'm also a bit surprised not to see Indiana's Ted Bolser on this list; he's not a traditional blocking tight end, but his receiving skills would seem to translate to the NFL. Only nine kickers and punters were invited to Indy, yet it's a little disappointing that Purdue's Cody Webster and Northwestern's Jeff Budzien weren't included in the specialists.

Others who could have gotten an invite include Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans.

That doesn't mean those guys won't play in the NFL. But their path to the league might be a little more winding.

Offseason to-do list: Iowa

January, 10, 2014
1/10/14
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The interminable offseason is upon us, and we're taking a look at three things each Big Ten team must do in the coming months before the games begin again in late August.

Up next: the Iowa Hawkeyes.

1. Locate linebackers: The good news is Iowa historically finds them, but the Hawkeyes are replacing an exceptional group in James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. The three combined for 322 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, six interceptions and four fumble recoveries last season. Iowa's linebackers were the biggest reason for the upgrade on defense, and it will be very important to see development from younger players like Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman.

2. Create more explosion plays: Iowa's offense established more of an identity in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis, but as Davis noted last month, "We have a hard time creating the big run, the big throw." Iowa averaged just 5.3 yards per play in 2013, which ranked 10th in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes lose only one offensive skill-position starter (tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz) and must do a better job maximizing players like Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards per reception and ranked fourth on the team in receiving despite limited work.

3. Improve in red zone, short yardage: It's tough to explain how an Iowa team with a big, physical offensive line and a powerful running back in Mark Weisman struggles so much to grind out the tough yards. Iowa scored only 27 touchdowns on 53 trips inside the red zone in 2013, and ranked last in the league in fourth-down conversions (5-of-17). Predictable play calls could be to blame, but Iowa should improve in this area as all the running backs return along with three starting linemen, led by left tackle Brandon Scherff.

More to-do lists

Outback Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
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Iowa (8-4) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) will meet Wednesday for the first time since the Hawkeyes shocked LSU with a last-second touchdown to win the 2005 Capital One Bowl in Nick Saban's final game as the Tigers' coach. Here are a few players and matchups to watch for in their rematch nine years later at the Outback Bowl (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Who to watch: This will likely be the last time we see LSU's exciting offense in its current form. We already know resurgent senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger is out with a knee injury, and it's highly possible that some of the Tigers' most impressive offensive players could make the leap for the NFL after the Outback Bowl. Receivers Jarvis Landry (75 catches, 1,172 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (57-1,117, 8 TDs), running back Jeremy Hill (1,185 yards, 14 TDs) and offensive tackle La'El Collins (plus defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) could follow the lead of the 11 Tigers who jumped to the pros last year before exhausting their college eligibility. On the Iowa side, the defense leads the way – we'll discuss that group in a moment – along with a run-heavy offense. Mark Weisman leads the team with 937 rushing yards and seven TDs, and the rushing attack is led by All-Big Ten offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, with Florida native Jake Rudock (2,281 passing yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs) at the trigger.

What to watch: The most intriguing matchup of the day is probably LSU freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings against Iowa's stout defense. Jennings did a great job in taking over for an injured Mettenberger against Arkansas in LSU's comeback win, but Iowa presents a different challenge. Led by senior linebackers James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFL, five sacks), Christian Kirksey (97 tackles) and Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 TFL), Iowa has arguably its best defense since Kirk Ferentz became the Hawkeyes' coach. They are No. 7 nationally in total defense (303.2 yards per game) and No. 11 in scoring defense (18.8 points per game). Jennings obviously has some talented weapons at his disposal, but he's a rookie starter and that can be a scary proposition.

Why to watch: Aside from the classic offense-versus-defense matchup, we could also see Les Miles' LSU program establish a team standard for consistency. The Tigers can win 10 games for the fourth consecutive season, which would be a school record. LSU has done it in three consecutive seasons twice: 2005-07 and the current streak. On the other sideline, Iowa can complete a surprising bounce-back season with a victory over one of the nation's elite programs. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 against ranked opponents this season, but with a victory, could finish as a ranked team a year after going 4-8.

Prediction: LSU 28, Iowa 21. Despite Jennings' youth, Las Vegas still favors LSU by 7.5 points at most sites. That's largely because the Tigers simply have more offensive firepower than the Hawkeyes. Iowa's defense is good enough to make LSU sweat, but the Tigers have too many weapons to remain quiet for long.

Season report card: Iowa

December, 27, 2013
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The regular season is all wrapped up, and we're passing out grades to each Big Ten team for offense, defense, special teams and overall performance. Iowa didn't post its 2012 report card on the refrigerator but can feel much better about its marks this fall.

Here's how Kirk Ferentz's crew fared.

Offense: B-minus

The Hawkeyes offense received a failing grade last season and had plenty of its fans dropping F-bombs, but the unit made tangible strides this fall. Iowa wasn't a juggernaut, finishing eighth in the Big Ten in yards and ninth in points, but it found an identity behind second-year coordinator Greg Davis. The running backs finally managed to stay healthy and formed a nice power game behind a good offensive line. Sophomore Jake Rudock stabilized the quarterback spot despite taking no game snaps before the season kicked off.

Iowa played to its strengths, namely a talented group of tight ends led by red-zone threat C.J. Fiedorowicz. Rudock spread the ball well, and backs Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri all had their moments. The Hawkeyes lacked explosiveness at times but didn't beat themselves as much as they did in 2012.

Defense: A

[+] EnlargeChristian Kirksey
Matthew Holst/Getty ImagesIowa's defense was built around a strong linebacker group that included Christian Kirksey (20).
A rock-solid defense led by one of the nation's best linebacker groups helped Iowa flip its record from 4-8 to 8-4 this fall. The unit's gains weren't as dramatic as those on offense, but Iowa improved to No. 7 nationally in total defense, 11th in both points allowed and pass yards allowed, and 17th in rush yards allowed. Iowa tied with No. 1 Florida State in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (5) and fewest plays of 20 yards or longer allowed (30).

Senior linebackers James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens led the way, combining for 10 takeaways. Each ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 tacklers. They played behind a defensive line that Ferentz called the team's most improved unit. Senior cornerback B.J. Lowery led the secondary with three interceptions and 16 pass breakups.

Special teams: B-minus

Punt returner Kevonte Martin-Manley sparked Iowa's kicking game with two touchdowns and a league-leading 16.2-yard average. Otherwise, the Hawkeyes' special teams were decent but not spectacular. Kicker Mike Meyer connected on 16 of 21 field-goal attempts but missed three tries inside the 40-yard line. Fake punts continue to burn Iowa as Michigan State successfully executed one, leaving Ferentz to consider scrapping the punt return team altogether.

Overall: A-minus

Iowa had a lot to smile about this season after a forgettable 2012 campaign. The Hawkeyes went 5-1 in Legends Division play, regained their crunch-time mojo in wins against both Northwestern and Michigan and restored some of the principles that characterized Ferentz's best Iowa teams. Their losses all came against ranked opponents, and they competed well in every game. Much like the 2008 team, these Hawkeyes got Iowa back on track and have set the program up for even better things next season.

More report cards

Indiana
Northwestern
Ohio State
Nebraska
Penn State

Michigan
Minnesota
Illinois
Purdue

Senior LBs lead the way for Iowa

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
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James MorrisMatthew Holst/Getty ImagesIowa linebacker James Morris pressures Michigan QB Devin Gardner during the Hawkeyes' win.
Anthony Hitchens switched positions and joined fellow true freshmen James Morris and Christian Kirksey at linebacker just before Iowa played in the 2010 Insight Bowl. The seeds of something special had been planted.

“We knew we were going to have a great opportunity to be a great linebacking corps,” Kirksey told ESPN.com, remembering that moment. “We came in together, and we were going to leave together.”

As the Hawkeyes prepare for the Jan.1 Outback Bowl against LSU, that long-ago promise has been fulfilled. All seniors now, Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens are major reasons why Iowa went from 4-8 last season to 8-4 this year, finishing No. 7 nationally in total defense.

During the preseason, the three set a goal to become the best linebacker group in the country. After a year in which they each finished between 97 and 102 tackles while improving their big-play capabilities, they at least have a claim to that title.

“It’s a hard thing to determine,” Morris said. “Stats don’t determine it, and you can’t just tell by watching film. But it’s something we strive to be, and I’d be lying if I told you we didn’t want to be the best linebacker corps in the Big Ten and the nation.”

They put up similar tackle numbers a year ago, but none of the three made first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012. So they came into this year determined to improve. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said all three brought “the right edge” into the preseason and have been “exemplary” ever since.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Hitchens
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallAnthony Hitchens led the Big Ten in total tackles in 2012 but got even better by becoming a student of the game.
Their value was apparent all year but especially so at season’s end.

On senior day against Michigan, Hitchens shed a block and forced a fumble from quarterback Devin Gardner to seal a 24-21 win over the Wolverines. Then the finale at Nebraska turned into a wrecking ball party for the threesome. They combined for 28 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in the 38-17 win.

"That was one of the most fun games I've ever played in," Morris said. "It's one I won't soon forget."

The group saw a big increase in its turnovers, sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage this season. Morris led the team with 14.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and four interceptions. Hitchens collected the most tackles, along with 13 tackles, two sacks and an interception. Kirksey scored the lone defensive touchdown of the three (against Northern Illinois) and was named Walter Camp national defensive player of the week for his performance at Nebraska.

Linebackers can't succeed solely on their own, and Iowa's vastly improved defensive line gave the trio more freedom to go make plays instead of cleaning up messes. Hitchens also helped elevate the entire unit's play by making major strides in his second year as a starter.

Though he led the Big Ten in total tackles in 2012, Hitchens accomplished most of that through his quickness, and he wasn’t always in the right spots. This offseason, he spent time working with linebackers coach Jim Reid on becoming more of a student of the game.

“My tackles for loss are a lot better this year because I can see stuff faster,” he said. “I can read my keys and get in the backfield faster. I can see guards pulling. Coach Reid helped me out a lot on that.”

After four seasons together, the three have grown tight. They'll occasionally get a home-cooked dinner from Morris' parents, who live right outside of Iowa City. Kirksey and Hitchens like to tease Morris by saying he’ll be governor of Iowa someday.

“Yeah, that’s real creative on their part,” Morris said. “I’m a political science major. But I don’t know enough rich people to run for office. That’s the truth.”

Morris said Kirksey likes to talk in silly voices and loves to impersonate the Pillsbury Doughboy. They both agree that Hitchens is the goofiest of the three.

“We've got similar characteristics, but we're all different at the same time,” Kirksey said. “Anthony is probably the most consistent. He always makes both of us laugh."

The three compete with each other for sack numbers, in the weight room or at anything, really. Rock-paper-scissors has become their latest craze around the football complex. That closeness carries over onto the field.

“There’s certainly a chemistry there,” Morris said. “Communication is easier because we know how each other thinks, we know how each other plays. In certain situations, we know exactly where each other is going to be on the field. That’s a luxury.”

Iowa will greatly miss their leadership and production in 2014, but they express confidence that current backups like Reggie Spearman, Quinton Alston and Chad Gilson can pick things up next year.

But first, the three senior linebackers want to finish strong and cement their legacy with a win over LSU.

“If you beat a team like that, it would probably do wonders for the status of Iowa football and how it’s perceived, not only in the Midwest but across country,” Morris said. “As a player, you can’t really ask for more than that.”


Officially, we only do a first-team All-Big Ten here at the ol' blog. But there were tough decisions and plenty of players deserving of recognition in the 2013 season. So if we had to do a second team, here's what it would look like:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
RB: James White, Wisconsin
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan
WR: Cody Latimer, Indiana
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
OL: John Urschel, Penn State
OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State
OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
OL: Andrew Norwell, Ohio State

Defense

DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
DL: Theiren Cockran, Minnesota
DL: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State
LB: Anthony Hitchens, Iowa
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
DB: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
DB: B.J. Lowery, Iowa

Specialists

K: Pat Smith, Nebraska
P: Cody Webster, Purdue
KR: Akeem Hunt, Purdue

Some tough calls here, including the quarterback. Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase has a strong case. But ultimately we went with the guy who was 9-0 in the Big Ten as a starter and won a league title with a 20-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon couldn't crack our first two teams despite running for 1,466 yards. We thought White and Langford were better in the key parts of the season than Gordon, who did most of his best work in the first six games. ... We had three tackles on our first team, so the interior linemen get their due with four spots on the second team. ... Several of our defensive players here were difficult omissions from the first team, including Allen, Countess, Jean-Baptiste, Lewis and Lowery. ... We chose Smith as the kicker in a close call over Michigan State's Michael Geiger, whom we honored on our all-freshman team.
Kirk Ferentz often cites Iowa's history when describing the program's current state. It's a luxury he has after spending nearly 15 seasons as Hawkeyes head coach and nine as an Iowa assistant.

Asked if the current squad reminds him of any in his past, Ferentz's answer likely will bring smiles to the faces of Hawkeye fans.

"Some parallels to the '08 season," he told ESPN.com last week. "Not exactly the same, but that's a team that never really worried about what was being said about them. We were coming off of two non-bowl years, and we were 3-3 that year. We were 4-3 this year and people weren't exactly throwing roses at us or anything like that. Both those teams stayed focused on improving and what was in front of it.

"It turned out a little bit better than people anticipated."

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
Matthew Holst/Getty ImagesJake Rudock and Iowa will take aim at LSU in the Outback Bowl.
Few pegged Iowa for the Outback Bowl after the 3-3 start in 2008. Fewer had the Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl before this season or even midway through it.

After a 4-8 clunker in 2012, Ferentz's worst record since his second season in 2000, Iowa entered the fall with myriad questions. A quarterback who had never taken a snap in a college game would lead an offense that finished 114th nationally in yards and 111th in scoring last season. Injuries had plagued the running back spot for years, the receivers seemed unexceptional and the defensive line had few proven players.

Ferentz brought in three new assistants, completing a staff overhaul that began with the retirement of longtime defensive coordinator Norm Parker after the 2011 season.

"We've been through a little bit of a transition here as a program," Ferentz said. "It hasn't been seamless. There's a process to that, too, but everybody’s more comfortable with where they're at, who we are, what we're doing, and that reflected with our players."

Sophomore Jake Rudock stabilized the quarterback spot, AIRBHG steered clear of a power run game led by junior Mark Weisman and the offensive line, considered a strength before the season, performed to expectations. Seven players have 12 or more receptions and five have multiple touchdown catches.

Iowa's underrated defense has been the biggest difference, as linebackers James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens have led a unit ranked seventh nationally in yards allowed (303.2 ypg) and 11th in points allowed (18.8 ppg).

"They've just been exemplary," Ferentz said.

In 2008, Ricky Stanzi emerged to take control at quarterback, while Shonn Greene won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back. Like the current team, the 2008 squad had excellent linebacker play with Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Jeremiha Hunter.

Although the 2008 Hawkeyes had a better signature win (against No. 3 Penn State) than the current team, it also lost to an Illinois squad that ended up going 5-7. Iowa's four losses this season came against ranked teams, and Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois have a combined record of 45-6.

When Ferentz mentions parallels with 2008, the natural inclination is to think Iowa could continue on the same path. Iowa went 11-1 in 2009 and ended the season on a podium at the Orange Bowl, celebrating a championship as Stanzi told a national television audience what they can do if they don't love America.

While you couldn't blame Hawkeyes fans for assessing Rudock's level of patriotism, Ferentz prefers to live in the moment.

"Whatever good happened in '08 wasn't going to help us in '09," he said. "The credit goes to our players. We're sitting there at 4-3 not that long ago and there weren't many people talking about us going to a nice bowl game.

"Most people wrote it off. Fortunately, our players never did."

Tale of the tape: LSU-Iowa

December, 10, 2013
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These programs gave us one of the most memorable finishes in bowl history nine years ago, and now they return to sunny Florida on New Year's Day for the Outback Bowl. Let's take a closer look at the matchup between No. 16 LSU (9-3) and Iowa (8-4) when they meet at 1 p.m. at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.

Who's under center?: This was something of a question for both teams before their coaches cleared it up in the last few days. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Jake Rudock should be “absolutely fine” to play against LSU after leaving the regular-season finale against Nebraska with a right knee injury. Meanwhile, LSU's Les Miles said freshman Anthony Jennings will take over for the injured Zach Mettenberger as the Tigers' starter. Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury in the finale against Arkansas, but Jennings came on to complete the Tigers' comeback, hitting Travin Dural with the game-winning, 49-yard touchdown pass with 1:15 to play.

When last we met: Iowa fans will never forget how the 2005 Capital One Bowl ended, when Drew Tate hit little-used receiver Warren Holloway with a 56-yard touchdown pass to beat LSU as time expired. That 30-25 loss marked an ugly end to Nick Saban's LSU tenure, as he left to coach the Miami Dolphins immediately afterward. Within hours of the game's end, Miles was named as Saban's successor.

What's at stake: Not much, really. Fresh off an awful 4-8 record in 2012, Iowa started the season with a loss to Northern Illinois. But it's certainly possible that Ferentz's Hawkeyes can finish the season as a ranked team if they beat LSU. Meanwhile, the Tigers have already bid farewell to Mettenberger and could be featuring some of their top draft-eligible skill players for the final time as well. A win in the bowl would give LSU its fourth straight season with at least 10 wins, a school record.

Hit the ground running: It would not be a surprise to see this become a run-heavy game. Without Mettenberger -- who was one of the nation's most effective passers -- LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron might opt to lean heavily on Jeremy Hill (1,185 rushing yards, 14 TDs) and Terrence Magee (614-8) against the Hawkeyes. The problem there is that Iowa's defense is no pushover. The Hawkeyes rank seventh nationally in total defense (303.2 ypg) and are 17th against the run (120.8 ypg). On the other hand, all Iowa wants to do is run. The bruising Mark Weisman (937-7) and slippery duo of Damon Bullock (467-1) and Jordan Canzeri (451-2) take most of the carries for Iowa, which ranks 41st nationally in rushing (188.6 ypg).

Back to the Outback: This will be LSU's second visit to the Outback (formerly Hall of Fame) Bowl, having last played in Tampa at the end of the 1988 season when it lost 23-10 to Syracuse. Iowa has played an SEC club in this bowl three times in the previous 11 seasons, beating Florida 37-17 in 2003, losing 31-24 to the Gators in 2005 and blasting South Carolina 31-10 in 2008.

Best wins: It didn't seem like much at the time, but LSU was the only team to beat No. 2 Auburn, jumping out to a 21-0 lead and winning 35-21 on Sept. 21. LSU also posted a memorable 34-10 victory over Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M near the end of the season. Iowa closed with a three-game winning streak to secure its first winning record (5-3) in league play since 2009. That run included a 24-21 win over Michigan and a decisive 38-17 victory at Nebraska to conclude the season.

Worst losses: Iowa's four losses are all respectable, particularly since three of the teams that beat the Hawkeyes -- Northern Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State -- finished with 12-1 records, and the other was to 9-3 Wisconsin. LSU's worst loss was certainly its 27-24 defeat against Ole Miss, although the 38-17 loss at Alabama also felt like a low point.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith LSU's Zach Mettenberger out with a knee injury, Iowa has the edge at QB with Jake Rudock.
Offensive stars: He doesn't generate as many headlines as Rudock or the running backs, but All-Big Ten left tackle Brandon Scherff certainly ranks among Iowa's most valuable players. Scherff announced on Monday that he will return for his senior season. Receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (57 catches, 1,117 yards, 8 TDs) and Jarvis Landry (75-1,172, 10 TDs) will both go down as two of the most dangerous wideouts in LSU history.

Defensive stars: All-Big Ten linebackers Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss) and James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFLs) are the headliners for Iowa's stingy defense along with defensive back B.J. Lowery (55 tackles, three interceptions, 16 pass breakups). Linebacker Lamin Barrow leads LSU's defense with 86 tackles, while defensive linemen Anthony Johnson (32 tackles, 7 TFLs) and Ego Ferguson (58 tackles, 3.5 TFLs) lead the defensive front and safety Craig Loston (51 tackles, two interceptions) and cornerback Jalen Mills (61 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions) anchor the back end of the defense.

X-factor: Even if both teams run and run some more, quarterback play could be the determining factor. Jennings will surely need to get the ball to Beckham, Landry and company -- and do so without many costly turnovers -- to force the Hawkeyes to respect the pass. And Rudock will have to prove he can get the job done against a strong opponent. In Iowa's eight wins, he hit 64 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. But in the Hawkeyes' four losses -- against the only four ranked teams on their schedule -- he completed 55 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and six picks.

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