MIDDLE LINEBACKER JAMES MORRIS
Simply put, the 6-2, 230 pounder was one of the best high school football players to come out of the state of Iowa. He led Solon to three state championships. He rushed for 6,646 yards and scored 40 touchdowns his senior year. He's in the state's all-time top 10 for career rushing yards, touchdowns and points scored. He led the Spartans to 41 straight wins.
An incredible rash of injuries hit Iowa in their victory against Penn State in '10 and, suddenly, Morris was the Hawkeyes' No. 1 middle linebacker. As a true freshman, he had 70 tackles and made six starts. Last season, he finished with 109 tackles, including three for loss and an interception.
On the third play at Penn State, Morris suffered a high-ankle sprain that never really went away. It's an injury that can force a player to sit for several games, but Morris just missed one. It flared up again very early in Iowa's Insight Bowl loss against Oklahoma when he left after maybe a quarter.
The ankle clearly was a factor in Iowa's final nine games. He played this spring and said he was 100 percent. That's a good start for a junior who's started 20 games.
2012 Takeoff: Here we go: “Let’s say my goal is to be a Big Ten champion,” Morris said this spring. “Nobody on this team right now has played for an Iowa football team that won a Big Ten championship.
“So, if you think that you can win a Big Ten championship and not change whatever your behavior was the last four years, you’re wrong. The behavior you exhibited has not resulted in a Big Ten championship, so something has to change.”
The ankle, again, it factored.
“When I injured my ankle, I felt like I was really exposed in the passing game at times,” said this spring. “I’m healthy now. I’ve felt good the past couple of workouts, so it’s about moving forward.”
As you can imagine, this is not a fun topic, being asked about arriving at a play a half step late. Morris’ stare turns stone. It’s spring, but Morris’ face is in November third-quarter mode against Northwestern.
“You say being one step short, again, it’s a second-year player, trying to figure out your role, step into a leadership role of sorts,” he said. “I feel like in instances where I might’ve been a half step short, it was lack of experience and a lack of understanding of truly what it takes to be consistent in the Big Ten.
“I feel I’ve had some time to reflect on the season,” he said. “I’ve got some ideas going forward and right now I’m just focused on trying to shorten that gap, trying to get rid of that half step.”
The “reflection stage” is something every team, from the Sun Belt to Alabama, goes through. There are different ways of putting it, but attention is paid to goal-setting and detail, the kinds of things that can set the course for a Big Ten title.
The Hawkeyes finished 7-6 last season. As you can imagine, this wasn’t a comfortable exercise.
“At the end of the year, you sit down and say what did this season mean to me?” Morris said. “What were our goals at the beginning of the season and what we accomplish? Obviously, we came up short in a lot of areas. What you have to say to yourself is how do we change things so that it’s different in the future.”
The conclusions shaped Morris’ winter. The topics covered ranged from video study (they do that in the winter, too), workout preparation, school and the amount of sleep he got (this is actually a big topic).
During spring practice that can transition to the physical, with footwork and hand placement (basically how to beat blocks) under Morris’ consideration.
“People who do it play after play after play, they give themselves better odds of making big plays, being at the right spot at the right time,” Morris said. “It’s not coincidence. The best players are always the best ones to make the best plays because they’re in those positions more often than the other guy.
“That’s where I’m trying to get. Make sure I’m in position to make a play more often than I have been in the past.”Morris cares deeply about being the best he can be. This season has a chance to be his best.