IOWA CITY – Over time, they’ve developed a bond and received plenty of honors, but the three seniors who return as starting linebackers at Iowa aren’t content.
“We do a lot of things well. We’ve been together so long we instinctively know what the guy next to us is going to do, which is great, but there’s more to it than that,’’ middle linebacker James Morris said.
“When you look at our resumé that past couple of years, especially last season at 4-8, that’s not what Iowa football is about. Our legacy as linebackers in the program will be determined by what we do this season.’’
Morris, surrounded by Anthony Hitchens at weakside linebacker and Christian Kirksey at outside linebacker, fill positions which are by design the most productive play-making positions on the Hawkeye defense.
They form the most experienced group of linebackers in the Big Ten.
Morris is beginning his fourth season as a starter, thrust into the lineup because of injury during his freshman season in 2010.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder from Solon, Iowa, has started 29 games and ranked third in the Big Ten last season with an average of 9.4 tackles per game while sharing the team lead with nine tackles for a loss.
If he can match his total of 113 tackles this season, Morris will become just the sixth Hawkeye to record 400 career tackles.
Hitchens led the Big Ten in tackles last season, averaging 11.2 per game. The 6-1, 233-pound native of Loraine, Ohio, finished with 124 tackles while joining Morris in receiving honorable mention all-Big Ten honors.
Kirksey, a 6-2, 235-pound senior from St. Louis, has started 25 straight games over the past two-plus seasons. In addition to recording 95 stops, he led the Big Ten and ranked second in the nation with four fumble recoveries. He also shared the team lead with two interceptions, returning both for touchdowns.
“The experience we have at the linebacker position is something we are all excited about,’’ Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “Those are three seniors who are very good high energy guys who can move and are athletic.’’
They also work well together.
“We’ve been on the field so much with each other, I feel like I know where James is going to go almost before he knows,’’ Kirksey said. “That’s experience. There is a lot of cohesion with the three of us and that helps make each of us effective.’’
Hitchens said the group communicates well, both verbally and non-verbally.
“We’re a unit in every sense of the word,’’ Hitchens said. “It’s something that I think develops over time, understanding each other to the point where we all understand our roles and we’re working together to get the stop. It’s been neat to watch it come together over time.’’
Tyler Nielsen, Jeff Tarpinian and Jeremiah Hunter were listed as Iowa’s starting linebackers for the 2010 season opener but the trio started just four games together before injuries began to take a toll.
Morris moved into the lineup first, followed by Kirksey before their freshman year ended after both excelled early on special teams.
Hitchens spent time at safety and worked as a running back on the scout team before getting shifted to a linebacker’s spot where he has made 11 starts.
“I think being out there together most of the time the past couple of seasons, we’re on the same page,’’ Hitchens said. “We know we can play better. We all can, and that’s the goal this year, but we feel like we can help lead the defense from the linebacker spots.’’
All three have been named to the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award presented to the nation’s top linebacker and all are regarded as potential NFL Draft selections in 2014.
But, there is work to be done before any of that can happen.
“We know what is at stake. This is it for us,’’ Morris said. “We want to be remembered well and thought highly of, but that’s just not going to happen. We’ve got to win some games and be a part of those games. That’s one our goals as a unit.’’