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Linebackers lead Iowa's defensive resurgence

Anthony Hitchens is one of three senior linebackers on an Iowa defense that allows a mere 4.61 yards per play.
Anthony Hitchens is one of three senior linebackers on an Iowa defense that allows a mere 4.61 yards per play.
Published Dec. 31, 2013

TAMPA — In 2001, a pair of future NFL linebackers, Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, helped bring Iowa's football program from despair to national prominence.

The Hawkeyes had finished 3-9 the year before, coach Kirk Ferentz's second season in Iowa City. But for the next six seasons, Iowa was bowl bound, and the Greenway-Hodge tandem — first- and third-round 2006 draft picks, respectively — helped spur that improvement.

Fast forward 12 years, and the Hawkeyes are seeing a similar outcome thanks to their newest elite corps of defenders.

Starting linebackers Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey were the first names Ferentz brought up when talking about the strength of his defense, which ranks seventh nationally in total yards allowed per game.

It's a position LSU coach Les Miles knows his team will have to watch out for in Wednesday's Outback Bowl matchup.

"I think they play the scheme as well as I've seen it played," Miles said of the Hawkeyes' base 4-3 defense. "It's a traditional scheme, but there's nothing traditional about how they play it."

Hitchens, Morris and Kirksey have accumulated 297 tackles, 35 percent of Iowa's total, and the three combine for 31 of Iowa's 73 tackles for loss. Hitchens (102 tackles), Morris (98) and Kirksey (97) all rank in the top nine in the Big Ten.

Though they'll play their last game as Hawkeyes on Wednesday, the standouts' futures in football could continue at the next level. But first, they're focusing on leaving their college careers behind on a good note.

The corps will be tested by an LSU offense that averages 466 yards per game. Running back Jeremy Hill and wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham each have more than 1,000 yards.

Iowa defensive coordinator Greg Davis, however, has been pleased with how Hitchens, Morris and Kirksey have adapted to cover different threats.

"They can run, and they can run with wide receivers," Davis said, "which has been good for us so we don't have to change too much of our personnel."

The defensive stats that jump off the page — including Iowa's mere 4.61 yards allowed per play — are things in which his group takes pride, Kirksey said. But those accomplishments won't be what they'll remember most about being a part of an elite trio, Morris and Kirksey said.

To Morris, simply getting to know Kirksey and Hitchens off the field has been his favorite part of the experience. For Kirksey, too, it's about the relationships.

"It's very comfortable, just to practice alongside these guys, to grow up with these guys," Kirksey said. "You can always count on them to make a play, and they can count on me as well."

Iowa has only 15 seniors, and Ferentz said that youth held his team back last year. Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens are seniors, among the experienced players who encouraged the defense to improve during the offseason.

Morris said he and others encouraged players to spend more time studying the game, and they watched film a couple of times per week during the summer. That greater understanding of the defense, Morris said, helped Iowa improve from 4-8 in 2012 to 8-4.

Iowa has a long tradition of talented linebackers. But Morris said he, Kirksey and Hitchens don't get caught up in thinking about the shoes they have to fill or the legacy they'll leave behind.

It's enough for him to be a big part of a team that's working its way up.

"We feel like we're a pretty good group," said Morris, an Iowa native. "We're not trying to be better than them, we're not trying to be better than future linebacker corps to come. We're just trying to be the best we can be."