Assume the Position 2013: Linebacker

Jonathan Daniel

Iowa returns three multiple-year starters at linebacker. So why does it feel like there's something missing?

Assume the Position is our offseason guide to the Iowa Hawkeyes football depth chart. The math is difficult, so take it from us: As time moves on, we'll know more. That's why we rank the positions from most certain to least certain.

Previously on Assume the Position 2013:

1. Tight End

Today: Linebacker

Iowa has a fourth-year starter at middle linebacker, a third-year starter on the strong side, and the Big Ten's leading tackler on the weak side. In the Norm Parker years, this was the bedrock of a stout defensive front seven. Right now? ESPN is ranking the unit seventh in the conference. Let's just say we aren't looking for Pat Angerer or Chad Greenway to walk through that door.

The One You Heard Plenty About

James Morris (#44, Senior, 6'2, 230 lbs., Solon (IA) HS)

In this program, there comes a time when you are what you are. The list of players in the last 13 years that have made a massive leap forward from their junior to senior seasons is remarkably short. In the past three seasons, I can think of three: Jordan Bernstine, who overcame injuries and changed positions, and Matt Tobin and Adam Gettis, who were playing at Iowa's preferred position. Eureka moments for fourth- or fifth-year players are few and far between. It is a fact that Ferentz has acknowledged in the past, telling reporters that a player usually comes into his own between his second and third years in the system.

James Morris enters his fourth year in the program, with more than two seasons as a starter on the inside (there was a brief flirtation with Morris at weakside linebacker in 2011 where increased coverage responsibilities did not go well). There is absolutely no denying his skills as a leader on this team; his teammates have passed those duties to him for more than two seasons now. There is no denying he is a capable athlete in general; he was one of the best small-school prep athletes Iowa has ever seen, and his strength and conditioning numbers are not a cause of concern. Nobody can or should imply that he isn't motivated; he grew up in this program, and is widely recognized as a hard worker. These things -- talent, hard work, leadership -- are what have made the great Iowa linebackers so great. They were shared by guys like Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds and Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge.

Why, then, is James Morris such a mediocre middle linebacker? I say mediocre because Iowa linebackers rarely stand out for doing something good, and I'm presuming he's better when not the focal point of the television cameras, but what we usually see is a player routinely out of position, whose instincts against the interior running game are suspect, and who doesn't have quite enough agility and strength to recover for those mistakes. Let's look at one play in particular: Venric Mark's 74-yard run against Iowa.

Mark1_medium

Here we are immediately after the snap. Northwestern is first and ten at their own one yard line, an obvious running situation. Mark, the only back in the game, is getting the handoff. Morris, playing middle linebacker, makes an initial step toward a hole to the left of the center, likely due to the quarterback's handoff in that direction. It's a massive error. Already, left defensive tackle Carl Davis is getting double teamed by the center and right guard, forced to his left. That's where the hole is forming. You don't want your middle linebacker on the other side of that double team, yet that's precisely where Morris voluntarily goes.

Mark2_medium

Iowa had a safety up in the box because Northwestern only had one receiver on the field -- again, this was a certain run down -- and Miller had positioned himself between Morris and the strongside linebacker, Christian Kirksey. The hole between those two should have been Miller's responsibility, and yet there is Morris doing double duty in the gap right of the quickly-toppling Davis (with Kirksey holding the edge). Hitchens, the weakside linebacker, is monitoring the opposite side of the center by himself and about to get blocked out of the picture. Again, neither Morris nor Miller realize that (1) this probably isn't good, or (2) neither one of them is blocked for a reason.

Mark3_medium

This is the point in the film room where Viper points out that Maverick pushed a bad position and only made things worse. Rather than realizing that he was beaten and turning to try to limit the damage, Morris tries to fill a hole that isn't there. Not only is he in no position to make the tackle, but he allows his own defensive linemen to block him out of the remainder of the play.

Mark4_medium

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Morris looks to fill the hole between the tackle and end, but he's a gap and a half away from the hole. By the time he gets there, Mark is already screaming past him to the left of the Northwestern center. Morris flails wildly, for naught.

Mark5_medium

Your middle linebacker should never let a player be this open in the middle of the field in an obvious running play. Period. Morris made the wrong call, pushed it too far, and ended up pile jumping a pile that didn't even include the ballcarrier. This play was an ethereal combination of bad instinct, bad technique, and bad recovery that became the story of the season.

Can he turn it around? Morris has been fighting injuries for more than two seasons, including elbow and groin injuries last season. His once-maligned inability to get off a block from an interior lineman isn't as pronounced now. He could benefit from a defensive line not built out of spare parts and paper mache, which looks increasingly likely this year. But instinct is instinct, and it's not as if the overwhelming addition of experience he's receiving from a summer in the weight room and another handful of starts is suddenly going to have Morris seeing the field better. The better question is whether he can be more effectively used elsewhere. We already saw that his coverage skills make a full-time move to outside linebacker unlikely, but spring practice photos and schemes during the spring game raised the intriguing possibility of James Morris as a pass rush specialist, likely not from the defensive end position but on a blitz from one of the interior linebacker spots. That sort of "find the opening and run as fast as you can" setting seems more in tune with his skill set than "identify the play, take the correct line, shirk a block and make a tackle" we keep expecting. Alea iacta est for Morris at middle linebacker, but there could be life here yet.

The One You Should Hear More About

Christian Kirksey (#20, Senior, 6'2, 220 lbs., Hazelwood East HS (St. Louis, MO))

Kirksey, on the other hand, was one of the rare beacons of light on the 2012 Iowa defense. He enters his senior season as a two-year starter, first at weakside linebacker in the first half of his sophomore season, then at strongside following a 2011 reshuffling and throughout 2012. Kirksey recorded 95 tackles last season and added a pair of interceptions, both returned for touchdowns, and four recovered fumbles. Despite being slightly undersized, Kirksey was able to hold an edge against the run and make a tackle when a play came his, and showed the cover skills necessary for any Iowa strongside linebacker, frequently matching up at the line with a slot receiver and managing to hold his own. More importantly, he was the rare playmaker for a defense whose obvious basic philosophy was "just don't let them score too fast." And all of this came one year after he posted 110 tackles, five tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a pick.

Christian Kirksey is a solid fundamental player who gets results without flash or histrionics. He should be the example held up to this linebacker corps -- hell, to the entire defense -- as the way to play the game. I would say that it is unfortunate that the butt-slapping mustachioed histrionics of his more-lauded teammate crowd Kirksey out of the spotlight, that it is equally unfortunate that Iowa fans have watched a string of phenomenal strongside linebackers in recent years -- first Edds, then Tyler Nielsen -- and might not remember how difficult the position is or how important it is to the defensive philosophy as a whole. But maybe Kirksey thrives away from the spotlight, playing his assignment as well as anyone on this team, not needing to show everyone how he leads. It doesn't change the pleasure we can get from watching him do it well every week regardless.

Mr. Production

Anthony Hitchens (#31, Senior, 6'1, 225 lbs., Clearview HS (Lorian, OH))

Iowa had a linebacker lead the Big Ten in tackles. No, it wasn't that one. Not that one, either. It was Anthony Hitchens, whose 124 tackles finished nine ahead of Ohio State's Ryan Shazier. It was this statistic that prompted Off Tackle Empire's Jesse Collins to put Hitchens in the conference's top five linebackers entering 2013:

Hitchens was a tackling machine for the Hawkeyes last year. He led the B1G in tackles with 124 overall, and despite only one of them coming as a TFL, Hitchens stakes his claim fair and square. Hitchens is one of those guys who just knows where he needs to be to make the play, and he routinely finishes things off.

None of that is wrong, per se, but it leaves out that Hitchens was probably more fortunate than good. In fact, he was benched during Iowa's November loss to Purdue and did not start against Michigan due to illness. The tackle numbers might speak for themselves, but so does a high profile benching from a staff that doesn't like to do that too often.

Hitchens was a running back and safety when he came to Iowa City, and only picked up linebacker midway through his first season on campus. In experience terms, he's still larval, with only last season's eleven starts under his belt (he played sparingly as a freshman and sophomore, recording 34 total tackles in those two seasons). Like Kirksey, he did not redshirt, so there wasn't even incubator time for him. If there is a player in the linebacker corps who could make a big leap as a senior, it's Hitchens. The talent and knack for finding the ball are there. If it is properly harnessed, he could be the breakout star of the three senior linebackers.

While You Wait for the Others

Quinton Alston (#52, Junior, 6'1, 225 lbs., Timber Creek HS (Sicklerville, NJ))

Alston is probably deserving of his own heading, but this is already approaching 2000 words, so we'll make it brief: He should probably be starting. If Iowa wanted to get crazy (LOL) and took a real hard look at its personnel, the glut of defensive tackles and lack of ends screams 3-4. And with Hitchens and Kirksey ready-made outside linebackers, Alston could line up next to Morris in the middle. That's never going to happen, of course, so Alston continued to be trapped in a glass case with a hammer and instructions to break only in emergency situations. If Iowa gets wild with Morris as a pass rusher, Alston fits in perfectly as a third-down middle linebacker. He gets top billing in 2014.

Travis Perry (#39, Sophomore (RS), 6'3, 230 lbs., Urbandale (IA) HS)

Holy crap do the coaches love this guy. Perry is a walk-on -- not former walk-on; current, paying-his-own-way walk-on -- who started a game against Michigan as a freshman. His only offers out of high school were from FCS schools, so Perry packed up his things and headed to Iowa City. He then put on 30 pounds, moved from safety to linebacker, and low and behold when the flu bug hit the team in November, Perry assumed Kirksey's position at strongside linebacker while Kirksey filled in for Hitchens on the interior. He's not going to pass Kirksey without an injury or suspension, and he's still not ready to be a Big Ten linebacker on a week-in, week-out basis, but there are positive signs for Perry as the next great Iowa cover linebacker going forward.

Also, "Madea goes to Ann Arbor" is in post-production.

Cole Fisher (#36, Freshman (RS), 6'2, 220 lbs., Millard North HS (Millard, NE)

Fisher redshirted in his first year on campus, as expected, then busted into the spring two-deep at weakside linebacker in March. There is a lot of positive buzz from the staff regarding Fisher, and he looks destined for that vacant WLB spot the second that Hitchens graduates and/or spontaneously combusts. For now, it's depth and special teams until told otherwise.

Laron Taylor (#51, Freshman (RS), 6'1, 225 lbs., Cass Tech (Detroit))

We don't know a ton about Laron: He's from Michigan, he was a two-star recruit with offers from Cincinnati, Western Michigan, and Indiana, coaches thought he probably could have helped a bit on special teams last year but opted to leave him in the weight room instead, he doesn't have he height to play outside but is in the sweet spot for middle linebacker duty going forward. If both Morris and Hitchens go down at the same time again, he's in line for some playing time.

Marcus Collins (#55, Junior, 6'0, 215 lbs., Monsignor Bonner HS (Yaedon, PA))

This guy was about to go to West Point before Iowa pulled him away with a scholarship offer just hours before Signing Day in 2011, so we know he really, really likes America. Aside from that, he contributed early in the season and on special teams in 2011 and 2012, but didn't make much of an impression either time. Certainly in the mix at middle linebacker, and maybe weakside, as we head into 2014. For this season, it's special teams and Ricky Stanzi t-shirts.

John Kenny (#45(?), Freshman, 6'2, 210 lbs., Carmel (IN) HS)

I would normally say that the chances of Kenny playing in 2013 are unlikely, but (1) he enrolled early at Iowa and participated in spring practice, and (2) there are two scholarship linebackers who redshirted on the entire roster right now. If Ferentz has his choice, I'm assuming Kenny redshirts. But if injuries mount and there's nobody better, they have shown no qualms about using him.

Reggie Spearman (Number unknown, Freshman, 6'2, 220 lbs., Simeon HS (Chicago))

Spearman was my favorite recruiting story out of 2013, a guy who not only could not make up his mind but openly instigated flame wars between fan bases on Twitter just for his own amusement. Still, he won't even turn 17 years old until August. There's a lot of growing to do with him, and my guess is that it will happen in the weight room in 2013.

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