(Contributed photo)

IOWA CITY — Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens don’t necessarily fit the mold of players who preceded them at weakside linebacker for the Iowa football team.

Both are a little smaller. Both are more athletic.

But the two sophomores do fit the attitude the Hawkeyes are looking for at the position.

“People keep talking about how Iowa’s going with smaller, lighter linebackers, but those two guys, they’ll hit you. They’re physical, tough football players,” linebackers coach Darrell Wilson said.

“They aren’t the biggest guys, but they play big. They’re quick and aggressive, and that’s a combination we can more than live with. They’re very capable of holding their own against the running game, and that will always be important to us.”

Kirksey and Hitchens were among nine true freshmen to see playing time for the Hawkeyes a year ago.

For Kirksey, that experience came on special teams.

Hitchens began as a safety and worked out as a running back midway through the season when depth became an issue at that position. When he moved back to defense, he returned as a linebacker.

“I think I’ve found my spot,” Hitchens said. “I don’t see myself going back to the secondary. At linebacker, I think I have a chance to make some plays and be in the middle of things. It’s a good fit for my size and quickness.”

The 6-foot-1, 224-pound native of Lorain, Ohio, is competing with the 6-2, 215-pound Kirksey for the starting position.

“I’m not sure how it will all play out, but I think we both have a chance to step in and help the team,” Kirksey said. “We’re tight and we push each other. We’re making each other better every day.”

Jeremiha Hunter, who weighed 235 pounds, filled the weakside linebacker spot a year ago, and Kirksey said watching him work helped prepare him for this year.

“It was good to get a chance to be out there last year. It gave me a chance to find out what this is all about,” he said. “I can’t say I’ve got it all figured out. I’ve grown since last season, learned a lot, but I still learn every day. I still need to improve my technique, get more consistent.”

Kirksey had little choice other than to grow.

His father, Elmer, died shortly after the Hazelwood, Mo., native moved to Iowa City. He quickly was surrounded by teammates and coaches, whose support was immeasurable.

“They carried me through a tough time,” Kirksey said. “They showed me that we are a family, a team, and that bond is still there. It has helped me grow.”

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That growth has positioned Kirksey for an expanded role.

Wilson likes what he has seen from Kirksey and Hitchens at a position where a season-ending injury to sophomore Shane DiBona has impacted the Hawkeyes’ depth.

“Kirksey has always been a linebacker, but he’s a smaller guy who can run, and he plays well against the run,” Wilson said. “Hitchens plays the run well, too, and his experience at running back and at safety can help him.”

Hitchens counts on that.

“I understand the defense better now and how everything fits together,” he said. “Spring was big for me. It gave me a chance to learn not only the position, but the big picture.”

It’s a picture that both players see themselves in.

“It’s up to us to make sure the coaches have a tough decision when it’s time to figure out who is on the field,” Hitchens said. “We’re doing that.”