Four downs with the linebackers
QUICK LOOK BACK: It was a wild and woolly year for Iowa linebacker in 2010. What seemed to be a simple shoulder stinger turned into a shoulder/neck/nerve issue for senior middle linebacker Jeff Tarpinian and limited to just five starts. Senior-to-be Tyler Nielsen (6-4, 235) was having a terrific season at outside linebacker, taking over for three-year starter and Miami Dolphins draft pick A.J. Edds. Then, he suffered a broken vertebrae in his neck against Michigan State. (Actually, the injury first appeared at Michigan on a hit on QB Denard Robinson.) He's no longer wearing a neckbrace and is slated for a return this fall. When Jeremiha Hunter went down against Wisconsin, the linebackers against Michigan State were true freshman James Morris (6-2, 215), redshirt freshman Shane DiBona (6-2, 230) and Nielsen before he gave way to walk-on Ross Petersen.
Hunter played on through the knee injury the next week at Indiana with DiBona on the outside and Morris in the
middle. Tarpinian was able to return for passing downs against Michigan State, so he was in and out. Troy Johnson started the last three games at OLB. Bruce Davis (6-0, 232) started the season opener at MLB because of Tarpinian's broken hand in camp. Oh yeah, Davis might've helped at MLB when Tarpinian went down, but he suffered a torn ACL in week 3 at Arizona and was out for the season.
In total seven players were in and out of six different lineups for the three positions. Camp starters Nielsen, Tarpinian and Hunter played just four games together, none after Ball State in week 4.
It was the first time in five years that linebackers didn't finish 1-2 in tackles for the Hawkeyes. It was also the first time in the last five seasons that Iowa's leading tackler didn't break 100.
There's a scene in the movie "The World According to Garp" where Robins Williams and his wife approach a house with their realtor. Then, a twin-engine plane crashes into the house. Williams turns and excitedly says, "We're taking it. The house is now disaster-proof!"
Alas, the gambler's fallacy doesn't hold in the world of football.
FOURTH DOWN -- CONCERNS: Experience is the least of this unit's concerns. What linebackers coach Darrell Wilson can hope to salvage from the drama of '10 is smarter, tougher players who've been through some poo and who will be better for it.
Morris (sophomore), DiBona (sophomore), Christian Kirksey (6-2, 195 sophomore) and, to a certain extent, sophomore Anthony Hitchens fall into that category. Morris is your middle linebacker for 2011. Defensive coordinator Norm Parker hammered that point home in an appearance in Ottumwa this month. He'll be better in 2011. DiBona has a shot at the weakside position if he can overcome the rhabdomyolysis and shoulder surgery he endured over the winter. Kirksey got his feet wet in special teams and was listed at 195 last season. A little more lead in the can and he could compete for the weakside position with DiBona. Hitchens (6-1, 200) is a full fledged outside linebacker, as HawkeyeReport.com learned on Marcus Collins' visit to Iowa City earlier this month.
There's experience, but there isn't a lot of depth. If you learned anything from 2010, it's that you might want to have some depth at the LB position, a high-impact, nowhere-to-hide type of deal.
Iowa quickly gets thin on at the weak and outside positions. There are bodies, but not a lot of proven depth. And one more thing learned from '10, if you lack linebackers, you feel it on special teams. These guys are your "mobile destruction units." They run and tackle on kick coverage. Before Abdul Hodge was Abdul Hodge the linebacker at Iowa, he was called signals for the punt team. Morris, DiBona and Kirksey started 2010 on special teams, but ended it in the game. That caught up with Iowa's special teams, which went through disaster after disaster.
THIRD DOWN -- ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: OK, I kind of poo-poo'd the gambler's fallacy above, but for the rest of his life, Jeff Tarpinian really should be disaster-proof. He had a shot to start as a sophomore, but a hamstring injury derailed him. Pat Angerer emerged and so Tarpinian was a special teamer most of his junior season. As a senior, he was supposed to be king of the defense, but, no, it didn't turn out that way. If he doesn't play another second of football, he'll have a great life. Academic all-Big Ten accounting major.
Hunter will have a rough path to an NFL roster, but he was invited to the combine and could hook on. Troy Johnson waited five years, but got his chance for extended play last season and was on the field for a bowl victory.
Sophomore Dakota Getz probably doesn't count as a new player, but he'll be a new linebacker. The former tight end made the switch in camp and will be listed as an outside linebacker this spring (or maybe weakside, but he was OLB last year). At 6-4, 230, his body is Big Ten-ready. He suffered an undisclosed injury last season when all heck broke loose at this position.
Iowa has three incoming freshmen who'll have a chance to play on special teams and maybe beyond.
At 6-1, 220, Quinton Alston has the dimensions to break in. He might be a little rusty, however. He saw action in just two games as a senior because of injury (meniscus surgery on a knee), but he still got 18 scholarship offers.
Melvin Spears is listed 6-2, 224 and probably has room to grow. He could be a defensive end prospect eventually, but in the short term, he could be covering kickoffs in Kinnick Stadium next fall.
Spears earned a spot on the Dallas Morning News all prospect team -- “Spears is a big, big guy for a high school linebacker. He’s bigger than his listed size (6-2, 225), meaning he’s already got the body of a collegiate middle linebacker.”
Head coach Kirk Ferentz made the call on the late scholarship offer to Marcus Collins (6-0, 215). The football player/wrestler/hurdler was defensive MVP in Philadelphia's Catholic League last year.
Here's what Ferentz said about the LB recruits on signing day:
“We’ll wait and see,” Ferentz said. "We’ll get them on campus and last year is about as high a number of first-year players that we have had that have played and we will probably continue on in that vein. It has continued to work well for us so realistically, maybe one or two will play but the rest will redshirt. But, feel real good about those guys, building a good nucleus there. Been hit pretty hard the last two years at that position and certainly our injuries last year, between that and the running back position, really affected our team and affected our special teams as well.”
SECOND DOWN -- BATTLES BREWING: Every spot on the linebacker depth chart has a little conflict to it. Some more than others, but there's enough there to make you think about all three spots.
Middle linebacker should be a done deal for Morris, who went from guiding Solon to three straight state titles to finishing fourth on the Hawkeyes with 70 tackles last season. He also had an excellent Insight Bowl with seven tackles, one tackle for loss and key harrassment on Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert out of blitz packages.
Morris went into last season 6-2, 215 and should be in the 220 range coming out of winter workouts. He could be Iowa's middle linebacker for the next three seasons. He probably will be.
Davis, a senior, will be healed and hungry after missing his best chance to play in 2010. He's been a program guy. He ran a lot of special teams units before suffering the injury last season. He's earned serious consideration, depending on his recovery. He probably won't unseat Morris, but could be a factor on who sees the field at linebacker.
Nielsen will assume the outside linebacker position, pending health. He suffered a broken neck last season. By all accounts, a full recovery is expected and on schedule, but still, broken neck and linebacker aren't a great match. Expect Nielsen to be the guy, but health is a factor. Behind Nielsen, it's wild and woolly again, with Getz and Hitchens competing.
The weakside spot is the most wide-open position on the team after punter and strong safety. DiBona probably would be the leader in the clubhouse (and really that's where we are on the cusp of spring football), but he's had enough health issues for a lifetime since January. That opens the door for . . . maybe Kirksey? Again, he was listed at 195 pounds last season. Not a lot of 195-pound Big Ten linebackers. After Kirksey, maybe redshirt freshman Jim Poggi comes into the picture. Again, he suffered from rhabdo in January, so his health status won't be confirmed until next Wednesday (Ferentz news conference).
Could a walk-on factor? Going off the Insight Bowl and online rosters, there are only two -- junior Terrance Pryor (6-1, 215) and sophomore Marcus Kloos (6-0, 225).
Morris and Nielsen have inside tracks. Weakside should be a battleground.
FIRST DOWN -- "On Iowa" predictions for 2011: Let's try a depth chart:
Middle LB -- Morris, Davis with Kloos and Spears (Morris rose to the challenge as a true freshman last season. He has the type of personality that just succeeds. He'll be a year better in 2011 and he probably leads the team in tackles with triple digits. Davis will factor somewhere in the LB corps, perhaps at WLB?)
Weakside LB -- DiBona, Kirksey, Poggi, Pryor and Alston (If DiBona gets over the winter of discontent, he has game experience the others don't have. That might be asking a lot after shoulder surgery. Kirksey flashed some athleticism in special teams last season, but he is likely in the body building mode. Poggi could have a say here. He was the most heralded recruit of this group.)
Outside LB -- Nielsen, Getz, Hitchens, Collins (Nielsen should return and continue to be an all-Big Ten-ish OLB. Again, there's not a lot of compromise on a neck injury, but all signs point to a healthy return. Hitchens bounced from S to RB to LBish in the Insight. He could make a home here with Nielsen entering his senior season.)
2010 -- 1) Jeremiha Hunter 90, 2) Micah Hyde 83, 3) Tyler Sash 79, 4) James Morris 70, 5) Shaun Prater 68 (Hyde and Prater were 1-2 in solos)
2009 -- 1) Pat Angerer 145, 2) Hunter 90, 3) Sash 85, 4) A.J. Edds 77, 5) Adrian Clayborn 70
2008 -- 1) Angerer 107, 2) Hunter 80, 3) Amari Spievey 68, 3) Brett Greenwood 68, 5) Bradley Fletcher 60
2007 -- 1) Mike Humpal 123, 2) Edds 80, 3) Mike Klinkenborg 79, 4) Matt Kroul 74, 5) Charles Godfrey 65
2006 -- 1) Klinkenborg 129, 2) Ed Miles 100, 3) Godfrey 83, 4) Miguel Merrick 82, 5) Marcus Paschal 67
Illinois -- The Fighting Illini lost Martez Wilson to the NFL a year early. He showed up at the combine and put out the fastest 40-yard dash. There are high hopes for freshman Ralph Cooper (6-0, 225). Illinois also lost productive senior Nate Bussey. Rating -- Honorable mention. The Illini will try to build around senior weakside LB Ian Thomas.
Indiana -- The Hoosiers return Leon Beckum and middle linebacker Jeff Thomas. Thomas finished second on the Hoosiers with 82 tackles. He also had 7.5 tackles for loss. Beckum had nine tackles for loss and three sacks. Rating -- Honorable mention. New coaching staff and do-everything Tyler Replogle. IU's defense has some building to do.
Iowa -- Sophomores rule the day at linebacker, with James Morris, Shane DiBona, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey in contention for roles. Rating -- Second team. A healthy return for OLB Tyler Nielsen, which should happen, would be a huge boost.
Michigan -- Michigan's defense changes from the 3-3-5 to a more conventional 4-3 under coordinator Greg Mattison. There's a big of a makeover going on here that could include three newbies in Cameron Gordon (who'd switch from safety), J.B. Fitzgerald (6-3, 244) and Kenny Demens (6-1, 250). Rating -- Honorable mention. There's a lot of newness for the Michigan defense. Demens did start seven games last year and could be a peg to build around.
Michigan State -- The story for the Spartans is who's not there, with Greg Jones and Eric Gordon pursuing the NFL. Sophomore Max Bullough and junior Steve Gardiner will try to fill those spots. Rating -- Second-team. Bullough and Gardiner have some experience. They also have a solid D-line in front of them.
Minnesota -- Minnesota football is beginning anew, but the linebackers have 28 career starts between Keanon Cooper, Mike Rallis and Gary Tinsley. Rating -- Second-team. The Gophers might have trouble keeping bodies off linebackers, but these three are proven.
Nebraska -- The big question for Nebraska's defense is how will the linebackers be used in the Big Ten? It's a much different league than the Big 12. Big 12 linebackers were tested against the run much more than in the Big Ten. Rating -- First-team. Lavonte David set NU's single-season tackles record in his first season on campus. Sean Fisher (6-6, 235) returns from a broken leg that sidelined him for 2010.
Northwestern -- The Wildcats will be young with the departures of Quentin Davie and Nate Williams. Rating -- Honorable mention. Senior Bryce McNaul, a returning starter, had shoulder surgery in February. The Wildcats are in spring practice right now and coach Pat Fitzgerald called this group, "the most-athletic group we've had from a foot speed standpoint."
Ohio State -- The Buckeyes lose hugely productive duo of Brian Rolle and Ross Homan. Etienne Sabino, Andrew Sweat and Jon Newsome are the candidates to replace. Sweat started on the strongside last season. Sabino redshirted last season after losing the strongside job to Sweat. Rating -- Silver football. Linebacker at Ohio State is perhaps the most competitive position in the Big Ten.
Penn State -- The Lions lost three starters, but Mike Mauti came on and was perhaps the Lions' best LB before a shoulder injury slowed him late last season. Khairi Fortt and Glenn Carson probably join Mauti. Rating -- Second-team. Penn State will likely rotate a lot of bodies into the position early and could come up with something solid.
Purdue -- The Boilers return Dwayne Beckford, Joe Holland and Will Lucas. Beckford was second on the team in tackles with 84 (3.5 for loss). Holland was fourth with 73 (7.5 for loss). Rating -- Second-team. The Boilers have experienced a bit of uncertainty at LB coach this offseason. After Mark Hagen left, coach Danny Hope hired Demontie Cross, who was then offered the Wisconsin job and bolted. He must not have liked what he saw.Wisconsin -- Junior Mike Taylor had a productive season for the Badgers, finishing second on the team in TFLs, tied for second in interceptions and fourth in tackles. He'll be joined by the 2009 Big Ten freshman of the year Chris Borland in some way, shape or form. Rating -- Second-team. Could be some newness with Kevin Claxton and Ethan Armstrong, but Borland is one of the more interesting football players in the Big Ten. He'll be hungry after missing most of 2010 because of shoulder surgery.