The Iowa Hawkeyes football program faces an uphill battle in the Big Ten this year, to say the least. They are breaking in a new quarterback, uncertainty at running back and wide receiver, and a lot of youngsters in the defensive backfield. One area where Iowa is pretty well set for the 2013 season is at the linebacker position, where they boast the best group in the country featuring James Morris, Anthony Hitchens, and Christian Kirksey.
While there are little to no expectations for the Hawkeyes in 2013, there are high expectations from a crew that in 2012 combined for 332 tackles and 18 tackles for loss. This trio of bash brothers is ranked fourth in the country by Lindy’s publication in the linebacker unit rankings nationally, and they are the top ranked team in a 4-3 defensive base scheme.
Teams that might be ranked ahead of Iowa’s LB group in pre-season unit rankings might include 3-4 teams like Stanford and UCLA, who have some elite level edge rushers that are considered linebackers.
Here are my preliminary scouting reports for each of Iowa’s star linebackers, a group that could feature three players ranked in the top ten at their respective positions come time for the draft.
31 Anthony Hitchens, Linebacker, Junior 6’1″ 225 pounds
Hitchens came to Iowa as a three-star defensive back prospect by many outlets, but he’s added nearly 25 pounds of bulk since he came to Iowa City and has turned into the team’s best tackler. Hitchens flies all over the field, making plays behind the line of scrimmage and shutting run plays down with his quickness. He is the ideal weakside linebacker for a Tampa 2 defense because of his ability to cover the pass and pick up backs out of the backfield. I would love to see Iowa use him more in blitzing situations, but I think Hitchens has the potential to be a Wesley Woodyard type of player, slightly undersized defensive back hybrid linebacker who can fly all over the field and make plays.
44 James Morris, Linebacker, Junior 6’2″ 230 pounds
Morris is a blue-collar, hard-nosed, tough-as-nails inside linebacker prospect who has the look of a future NFL starter, and a reliable one at that. He is rangy and has great leadership skills, and though he came into the Hawkeye football program as a 215 pound pup, he has emerged as one of the team’s top tacklers and grown into a 230 pound beast. Morris is a tackling machine who is always flying to the ball, and he’s been productive ever since his freshman season. He had 70 tackles as a freshman, 109 tackles as a sophomore, and as a junior, he’s looking to break the 100 tackle mark yet again with 96 through 10 games. The former running back is a little tight in the hips in coverage, and he’s not an elite athlete like the other LBs on Iowa’s roster, but he’s going to make tackles and make plays for your defense, and he’s a guy you’ll want to have on your team, undoubtedly.
20 Christian Kirksey, Linebacker, Junior 6’2″ 220 pounds
Kirksey may be the best linebacker prospect of Iowa’s stellar group. He doesn’t lead the crew in tackles, but he is definitely one of the most exciting defensive playmakers in the Big Ten. He has great athletic ability and is still growing into his frame. As a sophomore, Kirksey finished with 110 tackles and five tackles for loss, along with an interception, three passes broken up, and two forced fumbles. He has followed that up with a stellar junior season where he has 76 tackles, two pick-sixes, and 2.5 tackles for loss. He is excellent in coverage and his closing speed is second to none. He is a good wrap-up tackler and I think he can add a little more bulk and be one of the best OLBs in his class.