Four Downs with the linebackers (spring edition)

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QUICK LOOK BACK: High-ankle sprain. Two broken fingers. A sprained knee and foot. A concussion. Ruptured achilles. A couple of shoulder surgeries. A torn ACL.

This is a list of the known injuries Iowa linebackers went through last fall. Starting with Shane DiBona's Achilles injury in August and ending with James Morris on the trainers table in the first half of the Insight Bowl with ice on an ankle, which might've been the same one that went through the high-ankle experience on the third play of the Penn State game.

You can't mention Iowa's linebacker play in '11 without talking injuries.

Jim Poggi had an offseason shoulder surgery that didn't let him get out of the gate until late in the season. DiBona's injury happened in the first week of fall camp. The torn ACL that Dakota Getz suffered on the opening kick at Iowa State is keeping him off the field this spring. They were the depth players who would've come in very handy later in the season, when . . .

Senior Tyler Nielsen suffered three broken fingers in the first half against Northwestern (played most of the game with those before surgery the next day and missing one week). Morris suffered the ankle sprain on the first series. High-ankle sprains are a five week injury. Morris missed one game. Anthony Hitchens went into the Penn State game with a brace on his right knee and missed five weeks.

Somehow, Christian Kirksey made it through unscathed, and it wasn't because he stood around. He started the first seven games at weakside linebacker and the final six on the strongside, finishing with a team-high 110 tackles, just one tackle ahead of Morris. The two combined to average 17.54 tackles a game last season.

FOURTH DOWN -- CONCERNS: Depth is sketchy, but also has potential to be there in case/when injuries happen to this position.

DiBona (6-2, 235), a junior, played as a redshirt freshman and held his own. After a year out of the game (he also had offseason

shoulder surgery in '11), he's listed as the backup to Kirksey on the outside. "Shane is fine," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He entered back this January. He started out a little slower this January, he's recovered nicely, so he's doing well."

Quinton Alston (6-1, 224) played some as a true freshman last season and is now listed as the backup behind Morris (6-2, 230). With Morris in and out last season, Alston did see some playing time. He could be a potential special teams captain this season (but that's another post).

With Hitchens, a junior, listed as the starter on the weakside, sophomore Marcus Collins (6-0, 215) is listed as a co-No. 2 with redshirt freshman Cole Fisher. Collins made eight tackles on special teams last season. Fisher (6-2, 218) put on 20 pounds while redshirting last season.

Morris and Kirksey, both juniors, have started 31 games between them. Other than two starts for DiBona in '10, that's it for starts among Iowa linebackers.

Beyond there's Poggi and Getz, whose knee is still a factor. "Dakota was a different injury," Ferentz said. "His is a little bit trickier coming back. He's on the right path, still slowed alittle bit at times but he's on the right path. He maybe a little winded in the spring, but he'll be out there working."

Iowa is all in with Morris and Kirksey, two potential all-Big Ten linebackers. After those two, the experience thins out drastically.

THIRD DOWN -- ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: This team will miss Nielsen's toughness and athleticism. He wasn't on that top tier of Iowa linebackers who were automatics for the NFL (Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge, Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds), but he was a workaholic plugger of the highest order, possibly playing 1 1/2 games his junior season with a broken vertebrae (remember, he suffered the injury against Michigan and didn't sit down until halftime of the Michigan State game two weeks later).

Nielsen ran through the NFL combine and has a chance to be taken in April. “[Nielsen's] ability to play over the tight end or make plays in man or zone coverage in a stack give him a shot to play on the strong side in any system,” writes Chad Reuter, senior analyst.

That's really it for subtractions. You can't count Melvin Spears because he moved to defensive end so early last season. And senior Bruce Davis booked after week three.

Iowa offered several linebackers last recruiting season, but came up with just one yes.

Laron Taylor comes to the Hawkeyes from Cass Tech High School in Detroit. He helped lead Cass to its first ever state championship last fall. He comes in just under 6 feet and weighed 225 when he visited Iowa City last fall.

"Probably end up being an inside guy for us," recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson said. "Good leader on that team. He and Ruben [Lile, a Cass Tech teammate who also signed with Iowa] helped that team win the first state championship in the history of that program. Great tradition to start there."

Another bit of newness here is linebackers coach LeVar Woods. He originally was ticketed for the D-line, replacing Rick Kaczenski who took the same position with Nebraska, but that changed when Iowa landed Brian Ferentz as offensive line coach and Reese Morgan was switched to the D-line.

For Kirk Ferentz, this is a no biggie, no brainer. Woods played linebacker at Iowa and for seven seasons in the NFL.

"LeVar is a new coach . . . kind of," Ferentz said. "We got to watch him when Norm [Parker, former DC] was held out two years ago. He jumped in and helped out at the linebacker spot. And then this past year, obviously the defensive line. I’ve seen him coach and teach. I think he’s totally capable and will do a great job."

SECOND DOWN -- BATTLE BREWING: Morris and Kirksey are as locked down on this team as it gets.

Just five players have cracked the 400-tackle barrier in Iowa history. You know all their names -- 1) Larry Station (492), 2) Andre Jackson (465), 3) Abdul Hodge (453), 4) Brad Quast (435) and 5) Chad Greenway (416). (OK, you might not know Andre Jackson. He was a banner carrier for some dreadful defenses in the early '70s. Not only is he No. 2 all time in tackles, his 171 tackles in 1972 is Iowa's record for a season and he had 20-plus tackles in a game six times.)

Morris is on pace to for 400, racking up 180 tackles in 1 1/2 seasons as a starter.

If Kirksey's Insight Bowl was a sign of things to come -- and if he keeps to the grind -- he'll be an NFL draft pick.

Hitchens is a logical choice on the weakside. He's slightly undersized at 6-1, 224, but he can strike and plays low and strong. When Nielsen left the Iowa State game after the first play last season, Hitchens went in and didn't impress. He snapped back from that performance and was dependable after coming back from the knee injury.

If there's a spark of competition, its on the weakside. Collins and Fisher could push. DiBona played there some as a freshman.

Morris played well on the weakside last season, too, when Nielsen jumped into the middle after Morris sat out the Northwestern game.

"I think he likes it there," Ferentz said of Morris and middle linebacker. "We hopefully have some position flexibility there, also, to keep coming on. We have some good competition there. Shane is a guy who has played for us not last year but two years ago. I think he certainly has potential. Quinton Alston is a guy we were impressed with last year.

The one thing about James, I think he could play all three of the positions. Chris Kirksey could play two of them. With those two guys we have position flexibility and it gives us a chance to get our best guys out there.

"It's just good that we have some conversation about competition at the linebacker spot. Collins played last year. Cole Fisher redshirted, but I think he's a good prospect. I think we have more depth than we have in recent years."

FIRST DOWN -- PREDICTION FOR 2012: It's a whole new deal for Iowa's defense in 2012.

Phil Parker will be in his first season as defensive coordinator. Every player will be listening to a new position coach. Iowa will run the 4-3, but Parker and Kirk Ferentz have hinted at some new thoughts. Don't ask what they are. They want them to be a surprise.

With the majority of the Hawkeyes' D-line basically taking its first steps in the game, you have wonder if Parker won't take a look at trying to activate other positions to try to put pressure on the quarterback. That's the long way of saying blitz.

Would that come from the linebackers?

Historically, Iowa linebacker isn't asked to provide mayhem (tackles for loss and sacks). Iowa's defense has been built around funneling (or leveraging) everything to the middle of the field where pursuit can flow and the linebackers can make plays.

In the last five seasons of Norm Parker's 4-3, the highs for linebackers in tackles for loss was Pat Angerer with 6.5 in 2008 and for sacks it was A.J. Edds in '08.

Nebraska's Lavonte David might not be the best example. He will be an NFL draft pick and was exceptional in his two seasons in Lincoln. Last season, he had 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

Say Iowa considers some form of the zone blitz. The linebackers then could be the ones sent after the quarterback. With such steadiness in scheme and mayhem numbers, it's difficult seeing linebackers blitzing on a regular basis, but pressure is going to have to come from somewhere.

For the first time in a long time -- with the concentration constantly on execution over tricks -- Iowa has some element of surprise in its favor.   

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