Four Downs — The Linebackers (spring edition)
Starting three: Alston, Spearman and Perry, at least right now
QUICK LOOK BACK: With three senior linebackers, defensive coordinator Phil Parker was able to mine the position for attack last fall.
Linebackers Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris combined for 35.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. Morris was the first Iowa linebacker to lead the team in sacks (7) since the stat became official in 1986. In 2012, Iowa had 53 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. This year, those numbers went to 73 and 20.
Parker believed he had the personnel to be more aggressive.
“It always starts with ‘Can you get there?” when you decide to bring the blitz, and, obviously, can you cover it?” Parker said. “The guys bought into it. I wasn’t going to call something that we couldn’t execute. I think they took it upon themselves to make sure they executed it in practice. That made me comfortable calling it in the game.”
Iowa maxed out on blitzes at Nebraska. Is this mentality here to stay?
“I think it depends on the personnel you have,” Parker said. “I think the three linebackers [James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey], we took advantage of their ability to run and get to the quarterback. That’s why we did it.”
The 2014 season is a redo in personnel at the linebacker position. Iowa enjoyed the fruits of a greatly improved D-line and veteran linebacker corps in '13. This season, the D-line is in place and three new starters will take their first steps at linebacker.
FOURTH DOWN — CRITICAL QUESTIONS: Who's going to start?
Head coach Kirk Ferentz has said when asked -- on his radio show and in a bowl news conference or two -- that if next year were tomorrow (it’s not), the starting LBs would be Quinton Alston in the middle, Reggie Spearman at WLB and then Travis Perry at OLB. He also mentioned Chad Gilson (6-1, 235), Josey Jewell (6-2, 225) and Cole Fisher (6-2, 233).
Iowa will probably miss the punch that Morris and Hitchens brought on the inside, but Alston and Spearman could have the same instinct for the ball. Both were used in the "Raider" pass rush package that Parker unveiled midway through last season.
Of this group, keep Fisher in mind. He's a fourth-year junior who's put his time in on special teams. There are lots of different body types, so expect Parker to experiment to see who can bring what. If the pass rush doesn't come from the front four, Parker isn't going to hope coverage lasts 10 seconds.
Will Iowa again attack from linebacker?
Let's see on that one. This might not emerge until the Big Ten portion of the schedule. Also, Iowa plays two CFP teams in the non-conference, Iowa State and Pitt on back-to-back weekends. Mark Mangino is now the offensive coordinator at ISU. Iowa is familiar with Pitt head coach Paul Chryst who brought funky tight end formations and gigantic OL as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin from 2006-11. The window for experimentation might not be open long for Iowa's defense.
Can we get a refresher on Spearman?
He's 6-3 and up to 230 this spring. He didn't turn 17 until after camp started last August. His recruitment came down to a decent battle between Iowa, Illinois and Syracuse. He has always been listed as a linebacker (even though he seems to have a decent feel for rushing the passer, see Raider package, and could maybe someday grow into a DE) and was given No. 6. You don't see Iowa allowing LBs to pick a single digit very often.
Can Alston hack the middle?
We'll all find out together, won't we? He's made for it, at about 6-1, 232. The big question will be shedding blocks and handling physical grind. It took Morris four years to get his weight into the 240s. That looked good on him last season.
Alston is a highly intelligent player. He's known for awhile that he'd be the man in the middle. He probably took a cue from last year's group and has been leading video study groups this winter in the complex.
Does Travis Perry have a scholarship?
Perry (6-3, 232) didn't prior to the Outback Bowl, but has since earned a scholarship. The junior picked Iowa over a scholarship offer from Northern Iowa coming out of Urbandale High School.
THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Iowa loses a lot here. Hitchens, Kirksey and Morris were incredibly productive. Morris became just the sixth player in school history to record 400-plus tackles. Hitchens was a fearless striker who forced key turnovers against Michigan and Nebraska, the two victories that really made the '13 season for the Hawkeyes. Kirksey was one of just three defensive players in Iowa history to scored three defensive TDs.
Two solid legacies from this group: You could argue they revived the offseason video study that helped lift some of the mid-2000 Iowa defenses. Parker said safeties Derek Pagel and Sean Considine bought into it and grew their games from walk-ons to NFL draft picks.
“They were film rats and studied a lot,” Parker said. “Over time, they passed that along to guys. I think we had a little gap there in the preparation and what they had to do in the offseason and to prepare during the week. It takes a lot of time.
“That was one of my main things. For them to play, they had to understand the game of football. Once they dug in, they started seeing that. And then, they started playing faster. They’ve seen the results.”
Iowa’s defense finished No. 7 in the nation in total defense, allowing 303.2 yards a game. That’s the highest national finish for an Iowa defense in the Ferentz era (Iowa has twice finished 10th, 2009 and 2004.) Iowa finished third in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 18.8 points a game, its best effort since allowing 17.0 points a game in 2010.
It almost has to be the film, right?
“We felt [the seniors] and the coaches felt we had a young team and a lot of guys who were young and needed to contribute,” Morris said. “We needed to raise the football IQ of the team. We felt that if everyone on the defense understood it better, they could play faster, play better and that would lead to more wins.”
The second part of the "legacy" -- such a heavy term, I can hear Morris rolling his eyes at me -- this is the era of spread offenses. Iowa has slowly evolved from a heavy defense that didn't deviate from the formula that worked for so long -- four rushers, some zone in the secondary, bend don't break -- to a team that tries to be in position to defend every blade of grass.
"I would say that my career has taken place during a time period that has really been a philosophical transition in terms of offensive football in the U.S. and especially on the college level," Morris said. "It's a lot different what teams were seeing when Derek Pagel was here or when Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway were here. That evolution has accelerated in the last four years. Things we were doing didn't necessarily apply. Or we thought we understood things, but we didn't really understand them.
"I think that plays a part in how we might've fallen behind. We had catching up to do. We feel like we've done that. But at the end of the day, you know all this stuff, but you still have to go out and do it."
This quote from recruiting coordinator/defensive line assistant Eric Johnson articulates what Iowa's defense is becoming: “It goes into pass rush, but with the way spread offense are and the way we play defense, as a defensive end, you have to be able to play the tackle and then be a half-man back on the quarterback. So, we’ve got to squeeze down and then be able to react back out. The game that everyone saw that in was the Georgia Tech game [the 2010 Orange Bowl]. We were able to play the whole game without having to bring extra guys down into the box because of the athleticism we had on the D-line. So, we’re always looking for that athleticism.”
New guys: Gilson earned mention from Ferentz during the radio show hours late last season. Where he fits in? Special teams, perhaps? He might have a taste for the middle. He had to sit out last season after transferring in from UNI. John Kenney (6-2, 225) will be a redshirt freshman. He's listed as an outside linebacker. Jewell also will be a redshirt frosh and also is listed as an outside linebacker. They should make kick coverage this season. Iowa coaches also seemed to like walk-on Bo Bower from West Branch. He played through a broken hand or thumb during August camp.
The incoming freshmen are Aaron Mends (6-0, 200) and Jameer Outsey (6-3, 225). They could see special teams time, much as Kirksey did his true freshman season.
On Mends, Johnson said, "He’s not the biggest guy. He’s 6-feet, 200-and-whatever pounds. He can run and he’ll hit you. Once he gets into a college weight room and puts on a little size, you can’t teach speed and quickness. That’s what he has. Same with Parker [Hesse]. With those linebackers, that’s what we’re trying to do. Same with the D-line. We’re trying to improve our speed and athleticism on that side of the ball.” [Mends is strictly a linebacker, by the way, probably a middle linebacker.]
On Outsey, Rivals midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt said, "Even before he stepped on the field, he was one of those guys who immediately pick out. He just looks like a college linebacker should look."
SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: Weakside linebacker will be the most interesting race.
Spearman might be the off-the-cuff front runner, but that was Ferentz throwing names out there on the radio at the end of the season. You have to believe Iowa will have a place for Spearman, a 6-3, 230-pounder who played kick coverage and pass rush specialist as a true freshman last season. Fisher is another year bigger, another year stronger. He was academic all-Big Ten for the second consecutive season. He'll have a high knowledge of the position.
Alston will win the middle. Who's No. 2? Is sophomore Laron Taylor ready to contribute? He's 6-0, 225 and is probably best-suited for MLB.
Perry has been the No. 2 OLB the last two seasons. He has that job. Who's No. 2? This is a position where players seem to be groomed, so it might be a battle between Jewell and Kenney.
FIRST DOWN — SPRING AND BEYOND: Some of the work here has already started.
Iowa's defense grew its football IQ last offseason. Do you think the No. 2 linebackers picked up on that cue?
“Yes, sir,” Alston said with a laugh. “It’s definitely going to continue. That’s helped us a lot. Understanding the game has helped get us in the right spot faster. We hope that’ll get us some big plays.”
-- The competition for the weakside spot should produce a producer. Don't expect a Hitchens, at least right away, but between Spearman and Fisher, someone should emerge as a solid playmaker there. This linebacker group will have the benefit of playing behind a fully formed defensive line. That's a big deal.
-- Remember, outside linebacker is more of a cover position than a strike position. Iowa asks a lot out of this position. Iowa's Leo has to play on the line of scrimmage and in space. He's asked to cover running backs, tight ends and the occasional wide receiver. Perry is suited for this. He's been the No. 2 for a couple of seasons.-- Building depth here is important. Iowa has had a deficit in linebacker depth the last several seasons. Can it play enough players to have a depth chart without dramatic drop-off? We should find that out quickly.