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.
We finally reach the defense today, with a position where last year's attrition created this year's opportunities. While we're used to the wrath of AIRBHG leaving us grasping for halfbacks by October, there was no precedent for LINEBACKERPOCALYPSE last year. A trio of positions that were already stacked full of upperclassmen were chopped down, one by one, until we were left with unknown quantities and inexperienced freshmen. It was disastrous for the defense, especially in November as the attrition hit its height. And yet, from that attrition, we fixed the inherent problem in last year's depth chart. No longer is there a gaping hole at middle linebacker or a lack of options at weakside. Those problems are gone. Whether they lead to new problems remains to be seen.
The Old Hand
Tyler Nielsen (#45, Senior (RS), 6'4", 245, Humboldt (IA) HS)
In 2009, Iowa kept winning games despite injuries and suspensions throughout the offense, right up until Ricky Stanzi went down injured and Iowa's offense ground to a halt. In 2010, while it wasn't exactly the top-notch unit we'd expected in the preseason, Iowa's defense was effective despite injuries at a number of defensive positions, right up until Tyler Nielsen went down injured after Michigan State had been throttled. From that moment on, Iowa's defense gave up 267 yards per game passing (compared to 185 ypg in the eight previous games and 214 ypg in the previous four conference games). This wasn't entirely due to Nielsen's injury, but it played a significant part; going back to the early 2000's, the outside linebacker spot inhabited by Nielsen has been the home of Iowa's best pass coverage linebacker. When Nielsen went down with a broken vertebrae, his spot was filled with a motley crew of middle linebackers like Jeff Tarpinian (himself a member of the walking wounded) and Shane DiBona, none of whom had the same level of coverage skill. Offenses targeted the slot receiver and/or tight end in the passing game, picking on the fill-in linebackers and playing off Iowa's well-known aversion to anything beyond Cover 2/Cover 4 defense.
Nielsen's route from Iowa small school phenom to longtime understudy to lynchpin of the Iowa defense has been long but fairly direct. He received three scholarship offers in the spring of his junior season from Iowa, ISU, and OMHR, as well as interest from the rest of the non-OSU Big Ten, and was a borderline four-star from the services (4* Scout, 3* Rivals) despite modest production at a relatively small high school program. By the end of May, he'd committed to Iowa and was immediately cast as the next outside linebacker. Unfortunately for him, that meant three seasons behind the greatest Iowa coverage linebacker of all time, A.J. Edds. Nielsen used the time to solidify his spot, and was as sure a thing as possible following Edds' graduation. He was a rock last year, right up until the neck injury against Wisconsin that finished his season one week later. He's back, and he's healthy, and he's a senior in a linebacker corps full of underclassmen, and he might be the most important player to Iowa's 2011 success not named Vandenberg.
The New Boss
James Morris (#44, Sophomore, 6'2", 215, Solon (IA) HS)
We didn't even profile James Morris last year, though it wasn't for lack of hype. Morris, whose father is an equipment manager for the football program, committed to play for Iowa after leading his high school team to a state championship in his sophomore year. He then proceeded to annihilate everything in his path for two years, rushing for 4400 yards and 73 touchdowns as halfback for the two-time repeat undefeated state champions (he also contributed 139 tackles over those two seasons). You couldn't argue with his leadership skills or his smarts, either; he was a team captain and held an offer from Stanford.
Where Morris was knocked by scouts (3* Rivals, 3* Scout, though due in no small part to his early commitment) was for his size; at 6'2" and 215 pounds, Morris was a few pounds light for the middle and an inch or two short of ideal on the weakside. A year in the weightroom and adjusting to the speed of the game on special teams would do wonders, or so we thought.
Then came the injuries: Tarpinian, Johnson, Davis, all gone by the end of the Penn State game. With the blink of an eye, Morris went from linebacker of the future to the only linebacker available, and by all accounts had both the mental and leadership capacity needed for handling the defensive playcalling and the instincts necessary for holding the center of the Iowa defense. It wasn't always an easy transition; the Wisconsin game in particular sticks out as an example of Morris not yet having the physical skills necessary to compete effectively. He wasn't perfect, but he was awfully good for a true freshman. So long as he's healthy, he will be written in pen as the starting middle linebacker, and has the capacity for being the best in a generation.
Christian Kirksey (#20, Sophomore, 6'2", 195, Hazelwood East HS (St. Louis, MO))
Gone from Iowa's 2011 schedule are two heavy-hitting Big Ten offenses in Wisconsin and Ohio State. With them go many of the reasons for the old-style, run-first, 245-lb. Iowa weakside linebacker of the past. Ferentz has said as much, making the point this spring of moving toward outside linebackers on both sides of the ball who can effectively cover receivers as well as they play the inside run. Christian Kirksey is that linebacker: Smaller, at just 195 lbs. last year, and faster. Kirksey came to Iowa in a package deal with high school teammate Don Shumpert. Despite modest recruiting information (3* Rivals, 2* Scout, offers from Wisconsin and Minnesota), he impressed enough to miss out on a redshirt. And, despite the fact that he's grossly undersized, Kirksey has apparently put himself at or near the top of the depth chart for WLB despite the presence of an experienced and internally hyped redshirt sophomore and a more suitably-sized classmate. If Ferentz seriously wants pure speed, Kirksey can supply it. Expect it in passing situations, if not full-time.
The Utility Infielder
Anthony Hitchens (#31, Sophomore, 6'1", 200, Clearview HS (Lorain, OH))
I have no idea what to make of Anthony Hitchens, the fourth man listed as a starting linebacker after spring practice. Hitchens was listed by the services as a halfback, and was recruited by many schools to run the ball. It was with good reason: 1428 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior. Kansas, Indiana, and a handful of MAC schools offered. Iowa, however, had other plans for Hitchens, and ran him out as a safety as August camp started. The most recent performance by AIRBHG forced Iowa to temporarily move Hitchens back to halfback in the fall, but he was never long for the transfer. By all accounts, Hitchens has added some serious weight this fall and winter, shared the top depth chart line with Kirksey in April, and is now prime for a run at the weakside linebacker spot vacated by Jeremiha Hunter. It's unlikely Hitchens is the pure speed guy that Kirksey is, and he's not the traditional Iowa WLB that Shane DiBona has already been proven to be. Hitchens is an amalgam of the two, the perfect man for the difficult transition from the old breed of weakside linebacker to the new model so desperately needed.
While You Wait for the Others
Shane DiBona (#37, Sophomore (RS), 6'2", 235, Duxbury (MA) HS)
Shane DiBona has had a really bad year. After entering the 2010 season as the presumed backup to Jeremiha Hunter, DiBona received his long-awaited opportunity to start when Hunter went down injured in November and played well at weakside linebacker against Michigan State. He struggled while filling in at strongside linebacker the next week at Indiana, though, and was relegated back to special teams for the rest of the season. DiBona was then one of the most prominent rhabdo victims, taking him out for winter strength & conditioning and spring practice. Then came news that he would have shoulder surgery, keeping him out even longer. With that, DiBona had officially been passed by Hitchens and Kirksey. The OLB experiment didn't work out well, and Morris is set in stone in the middle, so it's weakside or bust for DiBona. He'll get a shot if he's back to 100%, but with the newfound emphasis on speed and versatility on the weakside, DiBona may be a man without a position.
Bruce Davis (#57, Senior (RS), 6'0", 235, Glenville HS (Cleveland, OH))
Davis started the season opener against Eastern Illinois at middle linebacker due to Tarpinian's latest injury, and saw action in games against Iowa State and Arizona. He tore his ACL in the desert, and that was that. He's the presumed secong-string middle linebacker, and doesn't really have a chance elsewhere; he's too short for the strongside, too slow for the weakside. Still, he's a fifth-year senior, so there's a chance he finds some playing time.
Dakota Getz (#47, Sophomore (RS), 6'4", 230, Meridian HS (Macon, IL))
Getz moved from tight end to linebacker last fall, presumably as a potential heir to Nielsen, but saw little action despite the plague of injuries in the linebacker corps. This was in no small part due to an injury of his own that held him out of five games. He was nowhere to be seen on the depth chart following spring practice, so it could be another year of special teams duty before Getz really gets a shot.
Jim Poggi (#43, Freshman (RS), 6'2", 215, Gilman School (Towson, MD))
Poggi attained notoriety this January when his "brown wizz" comment launched the rhabdomyolisis story. He was a prized recruit of the 2010 class for all the typical Ferentz reasons: Multiple-sport athlete, son of a high school coach, and touted as a "character guy" despite modest recruiting ratings (universal 3*). His recruitment was also one of geography: Gilman sits in the heart of the mid-Atlantic region Iowa has started mining, and a traditional powerhouse program at that. Rhabdo, and Poggi's prominent role therein, probably didn't help. His on-field success will be important to reversing that course. With that said, it's likely a year on special teams barring a replay of last year's disaster.