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Assume the Position 2012: Linebacker

This is why James Morris in pass coverage is probably not the best idea we've had. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
This is why James Morris in pass coverage is probably not the best idea we've had. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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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 ATP2k12:

1. Quarterback
2. Cornerback
3. Tight End

Today: Linebacker

For the last two years, due to injuries and ineffectiveness, Iowa has been juggling four linebackers in three spots, with neither rhyme nor reason behind who was playing where at any given time. Finally, with the graduation of Tyler Nielsen and no real competition for the three remaining returnees, we might have some stability in the linebacker corps, at least until the injury bug strikes again.

The Mustache in the Middle

MLB: James Morris (#44, Junior, 6'2", 230, Solon (IA) HS)

You could make a case that James Morris is the most important player on the 2012 Hawkeyes. If he's not ready to make a big move forward, that fact could spell disaster for this team.

The Morris story is well known by now: He got on Iowa's radar early as the son of the team's equipment manager. Morris received an offer from Kirk Ferentz as a high school sophomore and accepted almost immediately. He then dominated small-school Iowa football for two years, running for 4400 yards and 73 touchdowns as Solon won three consecutive undefeated state championships. His early commitment kept away the suitors -- only Stanford extended an offer after his verbal -- and likewise took him off the scouting services' front pages. Morris received a courtesy three-star rating and drove 20 miles south to Iowa City.

James avoided a redshirt in his first season, first as a special teams player and then, when the linebacker apocalypse claimed four previous starters, as middle linebacker. He was as lost on the field as you'd expect a true freshman to be; he was undersized, his coverage skills were a mess, his instincts against the run weren't yet sufficiently refined, and he could not shed a block between the tackles. These things were not good, but they were expected from a true freshman.

Last year, Morris was a day one starter and foundational piece of the defense. He was written in pen at the top of the middle linebacker depth chart, the leader of a new trio of linebackers built for modern times, or at least so we thought. The season began, and the problems remained. In particular, Morris was susceptible to the run: He didn't diagnose run plays well, and when he did, he couldn't shed the lead blocker in time to make the play. It wasn't working, and there wasn't anyone behind him, and so Ferentz shuffled the deck. Tyler Nielsen, a senior and prototypical strongside linebacker, was forced to the middle. Christian Kirksey, who was supposed to be the model of Iowa's new weakside linebacker -- smaller, faster, better in coverage -- had to move to the strongside to cover tight ends and slot receivers. Morris moved to the weakside, where his deficiencies against the run could be covered by Nielsen and his coverage issues would be minimized. He still got victimized in pass coverage -- there's a reason he equaled his career high in tackles twice while playing weakside -- but the damage was reduced.

There are extenuating circumstances here. For one, Morris was hurt; he missed the Northwestern game with a high ankle sprain (the sort of ankle sprain that almost ended Rick Stanzi's junior season early) and never looked like he was back to 100% after that, to the point where he missed most of the Insight Bowl with injury to the same ankle. That limited Morris' effectiveness, especially in pass coverage, through October and November and in no small part necessitated the linebacker shuffle. For another, Morris was still just a true sophomore and is likely due for the third-year leap that Ferentz always talks about.

That third-year lightbulb is our greatest hope for 2012. Iowa can get by with merely competent quarterback play; 2007 was the only year where Iowa's quarterback was so horrible that it brought the whole team down, and Vandenberg has already proven he's above that level of play. What allows Iowa to get by with average offensive production is stellar defense, and there hasn't been a great Ferentz-era Iowa defense that didn't revolve around a great middle linebacker. Merely competent play in the middle means average results. Morris' role will be even more important this year if Phil Parker does what we think he will do and make Morris the "rat in the hole" of his Cover 1 Robber scheme. James Morris is two years in, two years of injuries, experience, and mixed results. His career could be Mike Klinkenborg, or it could be Pat Angerer. This season will go a long way to determining which he becomes.

The Paradigm Shift

WLB: Christian Kirksey (#20, Junior, 6'2", 220, Hazelwood East HS (St. Louis, MO))
SLB: Anthony Hitchens (#31, Junior, 6'1", 225, Clearview HS (Lorain, OH))

For a decade, Iowa's outside linebackers have fit a standard mold. The strongside linebacker was tall (minimum 6'3"), a little lanky, and well-versed in the passing game (usually a former quarterback or tight end). The weakside linebacker was big and strong, all the better to hold up against interior linemen when defending the run. The logic was simple: A strongside linebacker needed to be tall and fast enough to defend tight ends in pass coverage and shed tight end blocks in the run game, and a weakside linebacker needed to defend the run first and handle a limited interior zone in the cover 2 scheme.

It's been thirteen seasons under Kirk Ferentz, though, and that philosophy is no longer particularly applicable to the Big Ten. No longer is the tight end a great concern in the passing game, mostly because a majority of the conference is far more likely to split a slot receiver off the line than use the tight end in the passing game. Because that receiver can move anywhere and get across the face of the defense more easily than a tight end could, that run-first run-only mentality of the weakside linebacker left a massive hole in Iowa's pass defense, a hole that was repeatedly exploited by opponents with institutional knowledge of Ferentz (I'm looking at you, Northwestern).

Kirksey and Hitchens are supposed to be living, breathing, tackling embodiments of Ferentz's acknowledgement of a problem. They're shorter, smaller, lighter, and (most importantly) faster and more athletic than the usual Iowa linebackers. They entered last season in a battle for the weakside position, a battle Chris Kirksey eventually won. Kirksey started every game for Iowa in 2011 and tied for the team lead in tackles (110). Half those starts were at strongside linebacker after the reshuffle, where he performed capably. It was a solid, if unspectacular, debut season. Hitchens spent September as a substitute, October with a knee injury, and November on special teams. He finished his season with 25 tackles, with only six of those coming after the end of September.

They'll both start this year, but it remains to be seen whether it's because Ferentz has changed his philosophy or simply run out of experienced linebackers. That will largely come down to how Kirksey and Hitchens perform in a defense that will likely rely on them for significantly more man-to-man coverage and pass rush than before, with the same responsibilities against the run. These are big responsibilities for some smallish players, and whether they meet them will go a long way toward determining whether similar linebackers get a chance again.

While You Wait for the Others

Quinton Alston (#52, Sophomore, 6'1", 225, Timber Creek Regional HS (Sicklerville, NJ))

Alston could be the first beneficiary of Hitchens and Kirksey's success. After turning down an impressive list of schools (Stanford, Wisconsin, Baylor, BC, West Virginia, and about half the Big Ten, among others) as a three-star prospect, Alston skipped a redshirt and contributed a handful of tackles in special teams and spot duty last season. He's currently listed as backup middle linebacker, mostly because he's the most prepared and polished of the non-starters. If there's an injury at any of the three linebacker positions, Alston is likely the next man in.

Marcus Collins (#55, Sophomore, 6'0", 215, Monsignor Bonnor HS (Philadelphia, PA))

Collins has to be the most unlikely freshman contributor in the history of Assume the Position. At the end of January 2011, he was a two-star prospect completely off Iowa's radar (at least publicly) and committed to playing at Army. Iowa jumped in with an offer on the day before Signing Day, Collins accepted on the spot, and the former Philadelphia Catholic school player of the year was a Hawkeye before we'd ever heard of him. Six months later, he was contributing on special teams and in the two-deep at linebacker. It was as much for lack of depth as anything else, and Collins' place is still in large part because there is nobody else left standing, but he should see the field this year at one of the outside linebacker positions.

Cole Fisher (#36, Freshman (RS), 6'3", 220, Millard North HS (Omaha, NE))

Fisher was the token Nebraska-based verbal commitment that everyone thought was seconds from leaving for Nebraska. Nobody will ever know if it was true; Nebraska never offered, and Fisher ended up in the weightroom for most of 2012. He added 30 pounds, and is approaching the ideal size for a Ferentz strongside linebacker. He's listed at weakside for the moment, but his future appears to be across from tight ends.

Travis Perry (#39, Freshman (RS), 6'3", 230, Urbandale (IA) HS)

We really hope Travis Perry becomes a starter soon. It's not because he's a good story, though he is (in-state walk-on safety with a handful of FCS offers adds 35 pounds, moves to linebacker, and plays himself onto the two-deep almost immediately). We hope he makes it because two years worth of "Travis Perry's Madea Goes to West Lafayette" posts where Travis dresses up as a sassy old woman and whacks Purdue Pete in the face with his purse basically write themselves.

Dakota Getz (#47, Junior (RS), 6'4", 235, Meridian HS (Macon, IL))

Getz seemed poised to break into the rotation last season. He'd been recruited as a tight end, but moved to linebacker as a presumed strongside linebacker before suffering an injury and missing the season. Last year, he started the season in the two-deep and on special teams duty before -- wait for it -- suffering a season-ending knee injury against Iowa State. This might be a case of a player who the coaches love but who simply can't stay on the field. This year is moving year for him, regardless.

Jim Poggi (#43, Sophomore (RS), 6'2", 220, Gilman School (Towson, MD))

Known best as the canary in the coal mine during Rhabdogate, Poggi had been a coveted recruit with offers from the likes of Auburn, Ohio State, and Tennessee. He's been hung up with injuries ever since his "brown wizz" comment on Facebook launched a thousand CBS Sports columns, missing last season and this spring after offseason shoulder surgery. Like everyone else, he'll have opportunity so long as he can stay healthy.