IOWA CITY — One of the most improved players on the Iowa football team this season may also be one of the most veteran players on the squad.
An honorable mention all-Big Ten selection a year ago, Anthony Hitchens has taken his game to an entirely new level as his senior season has progressed.
“He’s more decisive,’’ coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He is reacting quickly, seeing things faster and playing that way. You see it in his attitude, the way he gets to guys. That’s all experience.’’
In many respects, the linebacker has finally found a home in the heart of the Hawkeye defense.
Originally recruited as a safety, Hitchens worked out on defense and flirted briefly with the notion of playing on offense while cutting his teeth at the collegiate level on special teams.
As he added a little more than 40 pounds to a 6-foot-1 frame that now carries 233 pounds, Hitchens found a home at the weakside linebacker role he now fills beside fellow seniors James Morris and Christian Kirksey.
He’s at a position within the structure of the Hawkeye defense that is designed to pile up tackles. Hitchens hasn’t disappointed.
He led Iowa with 124 tackles a year ago, and heading into Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game at Ohio State, he tops the Hawkeyes’ tackle charts and ranks second in the Big Ten with an average of 9.8 stops per game.
“I’m able to see things now before they happen,’’ Hitchens said. “It’s a different game for me now and I’m able to put myself in a position to make plays a lot quicker than I was in the past. A lot of it is experience, just being older and having seen situations before that I can anticipate now and react much more quickly to than I did even a year ago.’’
Some of that is a byproduct of the physical work Hitchens has put in, some a benefit to the time Hitchens has spent studying film.
“I’ve learned a lot during the offseason going back and watching what took place on the field and how I reacted to it,’’ he said. “I’ve seen ways I could have reacted differently that might put me in a better position to make a play quicker and make it with more authority.’’
That has helped Hitchens lead the Hawkeyes with 5.5 tackles for a loss, part of a defensive effort which ranks ninth nationally in limiting opponents to 290 yards per game.
“He’s always seeing things, little things, that make a difference,’’ Kirksey said. “Some of the stuff he sees in the box, how a lineman might be moving just a bit, that type of thing, can make a huge difference. He’s one of those guys who learns a lot watching film and it helps us all.’’
It’s all part of the normal routine for Hitchens, a native of Lorain, Ohio, who will be stepping into Ohio Stadium for the first time in his life when the Hawkeyes visit the fourth-ranked Buckeyes.
He once attended a camp at a nearby practice facility, but this will be the first chance Hitchens has had to play at the legendary facility.
“To go there as a senior in college and to have a chance to play in a huge game like this, it means a lot just like it would for any guy who grew up in Ohio,’’ Hitchens said. “I never had an opportunity to play there coming out of high school, but I found an even better opportunity for myself at Iowa and I’m excited for the chance to go back.’’
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Hitchens will have plenty of fans in the stands, securing more than a dozen tickets from teammates to help his extended family squeeze into “the horseshoe’’ on Saturday. His biological parents, Norma and Anthony Hitchens, will be there as will the family he lived with in high school, Brad and Amy Anderson.
He proudly carries the names of both families on a tattoo, acknowledgement of the role both played in making him the man he is today.
“Anthony was surrounded by people who cared for him and made sure he was taking care of things in the classroom and doing the right things out of the classroom,’’ said Mike Collier, Hitchens’ coach at Clearview High School in Lorain.
Saturday, Hitchens will take the field in his home state a much different player from the one who earned all-state honors twice at the school in his hometown on the shores of Lake Erie. He'll be keeping one eye on Buckeyes’ quarterback Braxton Miller and the other on a powerful rushing offense led by Carlos Hyde.
“He’s always been a very driven individual,’’ Collier said. “He has plenty of ability and is a great athlete, but he made himself into a good defender in high school by watching hours of tape. It doesn’t surprise me that he has found a way to succeed the same way at Iowa. That’s just who he is. He’s never satisfied and it’s been fun to watch him grow into his role there.’’
Ferentz feels the same way.
“You don’t always see returning starters continue to push themselves to reach that next level, especially once they reach their senior years,’’ Ferentz said. “But all of our linebackers I think are playing at a higher level than last year, particularly Hitch.’’