Linebacker limbo

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IOWA CITY -- Maybe everyone Iowa should just be happy it didn't come to "plan C" at linebacker last Saturday night.

When true freshman Quinton Alston entered the game at middle linebacker in the second half, Iowa might've been fresh out of linebackers. The Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) were definitely out of scholarship linebackers. It would've been on to the walk-ons.

"They didn't tell me that," linebacker James Morris said Tuesday of the double-secret "plan C." "They [coaches] didn't tell me that if they did. I didn't know if they had a little red button somewhere in a suitcase or something."

Maybe Morris was plan C? He played in 18 consecutive games before missing last week's victory over Northwestern with a sprained ankle, which he suffered four plays into the Penn State game. Morris said he intends to play against Indiana (1-6, 0-3) this week.

"I'll be out there today [Tuesday's practice] and we'll see how it goes," said Morris, who leads the Big Ten with 10.6 tackles a game. "But my feeling is that things will go well."

They really kind of, sort of have to go well.

Senior Tyler Nielsen, who replaced Morris in the middle last week, suffered a break in his left hand during the first half against Northwestern. He had surgery Sunday, according to sources, and his status is up in the air.

"We have a lot of guys with bumps and bruises," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. "No one has been ruled out and we’ll see what happens during the week."

Nielsen couldn’t hide his bandaged left hand after the Northwestern game, but he laughed it off like it was a hangnail.

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” he said with a smile. “I’m fine.”

Nielsen suffered a foot injury against Iowa State and was in and out of the lineup through a lot of the non-conference season. Last season, Nielsen missed the final five games after suffering a broken vertebrae in his neck.

“At least the foot thing is getting better,” Ferentz said Saturday night. “Bumps and bruises come and go, I don’t think he’s planning on missing anything, I know that, the rest of the way.”

Iowa played four linebackers Saturday night, with Alston and junior Tom Donatell, who replaced Nielsen on the outside. When Northwestern went heavy running game, Iowa coaches moved Alston into the middle and slid Nielsen outside. The idea was to get more bulk into the game. Donatell is a converted safety who weighs in at 205 pounds.

"We're OK, we're doing OK," Ferentz said. "We'll get [Anthony] Hitchens and James back, two more in the boat. We had a lot of practice at this last year. Two of our top three were out quick last year. It seemed pretty quick."

Your head is swirling, isn't it? So, who's playing linebacker against the Hoosiers?

Morris is in, if his "good feeling" about Tuesday's practice held up. Hitchens could also be in. He's been in uniform but hasn't played the last two weeks, wearing a knee brace that offensive linemen use on his right knee.

Donatell should be in. Alston is in. As Ferentz put it Saturday night, "He's in the Army now." Sophomores Shane DiBona (Achilles tendon rupture) and Dakota Getz (ACL) have long been out.

Jury is out on Nielsen, although there is some recent precedent for Iowa linebackers playing with a bandaged "club" hand. In 2007, middle linebacker Mike Klinkenborg suffered a broken hand against Michigan State but returned to play in the next three games.

"The only thing I wish I could use is my fingers," Klinkenborg said at the time, holding up the plastic cast/immobilizer on his hand. "It makes it a lot tougher to get off blocks and tackle guys."

Sophomore Christian Kirksey, second in the Big Ten with 9.7 tackles a game, is doing just fine as the weakside linebacker. If this were a no-hitter in baseball, this story wouldn't have his name in it, attempting to avoid the jinx, you know.

The linebacker insurance policy left the team four weeks ago. Iowa announced after the Pitt game that senior linebacker Bruce Davis decided to leave. That door is closed.

"Yeah, he left the team," Ferentz said. "He's going to graduate . . . and we wish him the best. We 'll be fine."

Your head is still swirling. Let's try this one more time.

Morris, he says good feeling. Hitchens, Ferentz says yes. Donatell, probably. Alston, an energetic freshman yes. Nielsen, don't know. Kirksey, hopefully no jinx.

"I'd say it's more bad luck than the nature of the position," said Morris, who was "plan C" as a true freshman last season when Iowa lost its top two middle linebackers. "It's a part of football, you've just got to move forward with the guys you have."

And with the guys you don't have.

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