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Four Downs -- The Linebackers (spring edition)
QUICK LOOK BACK: James Morris 6-2, 240), Christian Kirksey (6-2, 235) and Anthony Hitchens (6-1, 233) combined to make 34 of the possible 36 starts last season for the three linebacker spots. Morris and Hitchens didn't start the Michigan game in week 10 because of injury and illness, respectively. Kirksey started somewhere every week.
They combine for 65 career starts coming into '12. That nearly doubles up the 33 starts returnees on the O-line account for. With three seniors, two three-year starters and a second-year starter, linebacker is clearly Iowa's most experienced position group.
Iowa accumulated 932 tackles as a team last season. Led by Hitchens' team-high 124, these three linebackers totaled 332 tackles, 36 percent of Iowa's tackles. Last season was the first time since 2007 where Iowa's three linebackers led the team in tackles. In '07, that was Mike Humpal, A.J. Edds and Mike Klinkenborg.
When injury and illness struck, the next players in were junior Quinton Alston (6-1, 232) and sophomore Travis Perry (6-3, 232). Alston is a middle linebacker. He subbed for Morris against Michigan. Perry went in at outside linebacker and Kirksey moved to Hitchens' spot.
Performance? The linebackers struggled at times last season, right along with the defensive line, which was young and almost totally unproven. The two are tied at the hip. Remember Pat Angerer and his all-Big Ten 2009? Then, you remember the D-line that was in front of him. Four of them are in the NFL -- Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, Karl Klug and Mike Daniels. Angerer as great. He's getting paid to play the game and starts for the Indianapolis Colts. Iowa hasn't had a lot of linebackers who could run and tackle like Angerer. That D-line made him an ever bigger weapon for that '09 defense.
When a linebacker has to take on a 300-plus pound guard, there is a cumulative effect. At the end of the season, Morris had ankle, groin, elbow and who knows what else going on (shoulder maybe?).
What percent did sub-par D-line play affect the linebackers? Impossible to gauge, but it all added up to a tough year for the defense.
FOURTH DOWN - CONCERNS: Depth would jump out here, but keep in mind how many games these guys have started. Durability is not a problem, so depth likely won't be tested.
The problem there of course is succession. Will the group of Alston, Perry and, hmmm, let's say sophomore Cole Fisher (6-2, 228) (but let's not forget about junior Marcus Collins (6-0, 222)) be ready to step into starting roles in '14 with very little critical playing time? It happens all the time. And if you start three seniors, you go into the next season knowing you have a bill to pay.
Also, last season as Morris' health deteriorated his performance followed. How couldn't it? The elbow injury at Northwestern. The groin injury against Purdue. Among others. It added up. Coaches seemed reluctant to make a change and allow him a chance to get at least a little healthy until Alston finally started at Michigan. And that only lasted a few series.
Every linebacker in the country has something going on health-wise in the November of any season. If a coach has depth he trusts, he makes a move. No amount of time will cure all the ills a Big Ten linebacker will have in November -- Morris said this week that it took him five weeks after last season ended to feel normal -- but it's felt as though Iowa has been a body short at linebacker the last few years. That ties coaches' hands. Health becomes the deciding factor on playing time and not performance.
So, short answer, the concern is depth. If someone is limping, linebacker coaches LeVar Woods and Jim Reid have to trust the No. 2. And if injured No. 1 is still that much better than healthy No. 2, the problem goes much deeper.
THIRD DOWN - ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: There were really no noteworthy departures. Tommy Donatell played some outside linebacker in 2011, but we'll save his name for subtractions in the secondary.
Who's coming in?
Redshirt freshman Laron Taylor (6-0, 225) sat out last season. The scouting report was impressive linebacker body who might've been able to sneak in on special teams last season. He's 6-foot(ish), but caught Iowa's attention out of Detroit's Cass Tech with a really good nose for the ball. Built like an inside linebacker.
Iowa signed three linebackers in February -- John Kenny (6-2, 210), Josey Jewell (6-2, 200) and Reggie Spearman (6-2, 225). They'll boost Iowa to 10 scholarship linebackers. This spring, Iowa has just seven with five walk-ons competing for time. Iowa also will bring in another two walk-ons next fall (including West Branch's Bo Bower). That's 17 bodies and that can only help competition, depth and provide a pool of possible special teams candidates.
Kenny(who enrolled early and is on campus participating in spring drills) -- "We have a huge need at the linebacker spot from a depth
standpoint, and hopefully he can add to that depth” -- Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson.
Jewell -- "“He's a guy Reese [Morgan, Iowa D-line coach who recruits Iowa and the plains] has felt very strongly about through out the process. When Reese feels strongly about a person, that holds high regard in our minds. He knows these kids inside and out. When Reese really went to bat for [Jewell], coach [Kirk Ferentz] took that into account and offered him a scholarship” -- Johnson
Spearman (he'll won't turn 17 until a couple of weeks into fall camp in August) -- "He was definitely a need for us. We went through the entire evaluation process with and felt very strongly about. . . . He's a young kid, too. He's only 16-years-old right now. He's got a lot of growth and will be able to mature a lot more from a physical standpoint" -- Johnson
Walk-on Chad Gilson (6-1, 230) is a junior transferring in from UNI.
SECOND DOWN - BATTLES BREWING: Three senior starters kind of puts the kibosh on headline battles, so let's take a look at the 2s. These guys are positioning themselves for next season, so these should be spirited. How will we measure? Let's see 1) who plays special teams (linebackers are key on special teams because they can run) and 2) who actually does get to play in case of injury and/or blowout.
MLB -- Alston has clearly gained trust. He just needs time on the field, time in the defense. Barring injury and what-not, he definitely has the inside track at MLB in 2014. Taylor might be in that battle because of his size. Kenny also could join that race depending on his growth. Both could also be in the conversation at WLB. Spearman could factor in here, too.
WLB -- If Fisher hooks into special teams and makes a play or two, he jumps into consideration. He's listed No. 2 here behind Hitchens this spring. Fisher had good growth this offseason, jumping into the 225-230 range. Another winter like that and he's got the requisite 230-240 to play LB in the Big Ten. Kenny, Taylor and Spearman also could punch in here. Spearman had a few videos floating around the internet (Rivals.com maybe?) that showed an amazing knack for rushing the passer. It was in T-shirt and shorts, but he showed off-the-charts quickness, balance and knew to keep OLs from getting their hands into him. Pending development, he's an athlete Iowa is going to want to have on the field somewhere.
OLB -- Perry, who logged a start last season, has been a favorite here for awhile. He'll likely be a two-year starter after Kirksey graduates. The big question is when he earns a scholarship. He's the next walk-on who'll be rewarded. Kenny and Jewell are possibilities here. Kenny is listed as an OLB this spring.
FIRST DOWN - WHAT COULD HAPPEN: Expect a big year here. We're talking three seniors who've played well when healthy.
-- During interviews yesterday, Morris spoke about wanting to leave a legacy he could be proud of. He desperately wants to steer the ship in the right direction. His stepdad, Greg, is the equipment manager, so he's grown up with the program and knows what it means to everyone around here. Morris also talked about his desire to play at the next level and extend his career. There might not be a more fully invested player. Iowa football is in his bones.
-- Is Kirksey an NFL draft pick? Remember the skinny 210 pounder who stepped into special teams as a true frosh? He's listed at 235 now. He returned two interceptions for TDs last season. Kirksey came to Iowa with only a few years of football on his resume. Remember when he started his sophomore season at WLB most of the year? He's found a home on the outside. This should be the "fun" year for him.
-- Hitchens racked up monster tackle totals, but you want to see more disruption/tackles for loss. He started playing faster toward the end of the season. His best trait is desire. Check this post from last fall for what his motivation is.
-- For now the plan is for Reid to coach the inside linebackers. Woods, who played OLB at Iowa and in the NFL, will coach OLB. Reid said this week that could change. Reid coached OLB for the Miami Dolphins, where he guided a former Hawkeye named Matt Roth.
I asked Reid his how much of the success of this season's defense is tied to the D-line holding up its end of the deal?
"It all starts up front, and that's what a lot of people say, and I agree with that," he said. "So, it all starts up front on offense and defense.
"And then the linebackers are the heart. They tie in the front and they tie in the secondary. On the back end are the guys that make the dynamic plays and have to have great daring and great understanding.
"So, it's all together, but looking you square in the eye, and I could be wrong, Bobby [Kennedy, WR coach who spoke before Reid] might have a different view, coach Ferentz might have a different view, but in my humble view, it all starts up front."
That brings things full circle here.