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Senior LBs lead the way for Iowa

12/18/2013
Iowa linebacker James Morris pressures Michigan QB Devin Gardner during the Hawkeyes' win. Matthew Holst/Getty Images

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.

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.”