Cover Story: Hawkeyes encountering "landmines" at linebacker


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Faced with numerous questions about the status of his linebackers, Kirk Ferentz stood sometimes speechless in front of reporters Tuesday in the basement of the Hayden Fry Football Complex.

With each passing question, it seemed as if Ferentz himself was realizing how dire the situation is at the position.

Asked one reporter about outside linebacker: "It's [fifth-year senior] Ross Petersen, and then …"

"Yeah," Ferentz paused, going through the depth chart in his mind, searching for an answer that was little more than a lingering phrase.

"And then …"

And so it goes for the linebacking corps — a unit the Iowa head coach said has encountered a few "landmines" and can only be described as "thin."

The latest victim: Tyler Nielsen, who was seen walking around campus Wednesday wearing a neck brace.

The junior suffered a neck injury that will likely keep him out a significant period of time, Ferentz said. Nielsen has started all eight of Iowa's games this season and was one of the only linebackers left on the depth chart who was both healthy and experienced.

As Ferentz said on Oct. 26, "I don't want to jinx [Nielsen], but he's healthy as can be."

Combine Nielsen's injury with Bruce Davis' ACL tear against Arizona, as well as lingering injuries to Jeremiha Hunter and Jeff Tarpinian, and the Hawkeyes are left with a unit no longer searching for seasoned players — they're simply looking for healthy bodies.

The young leader

Imagine you're Adrian Clayborn. Imagine you're a 6-4, 285-pound All-American defensive end who will play in the NFL next year.

And now imagine getting your defensive cues from a true freshman middle linebacker.

James Morris is that freshman, and that's exactly what's happening on Iowa's defense — the No. 12-ranked unit in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

"At this point in the season, you've got to roll with whoever's in there," Clayborn said Wednesday.

"It's a little different going from Pat [Angerer] last year to him. It's different, but you've just got to roll with it because it's the last four games of the season and a lot more people are going to be thrown in there."

With Tarpinian and fill-in Troy Johnson slowed by injuries, Morris got his first career start at middle linebacker on Oct. 30 against Michigan State.

But that didn't faze the 18-year-old — at least according to his teammates. As a true freshman, Morris isn't allowed by the team to talk to the media.

"For a kid to come in and stand in front of our defensive line as a true freshman, you think most kids would probably be intimidated," safety Tyler Sash said. "He stands in front, makes all the checks to all those guys up front."

The Solon native made his first major appearance on defense in the Big Ten opener against Penn State, recording seven tackles and a pass break-up.

From there, he has continued to look like a Big Ten veteran.

Against Michigan State — a high-powered offense that came into the contest averaging just under 450 yards of total offense — Morris looked like anything but an 18-year-old. Faced with a third and 1 on the Spartans' first series of the game, Morris stuffed Edwin Baker for no gain to force a three and out.

He finished with a career-high nine tackles and set the tone for the team's dominating defensive performance, in which it allowed six points.

"We envisioned him being a good linebacker," Ferentz said. "I don't think any of us were envisioning it being this year."

While Morris' playmaking abilities have made a big impact for the Hawkeyes, perhaps his more important attribute is the energy he brings on the field.

That intensity — described by Clayborn as a "nerdy, freshman-type energy" — has rubbed off on him and fellow lineman Mike Daniels.

"James loves football," Daniels said. "He'll do whatever it takes to be the best. He brings energy to that field. He brings a fire to that field. He's going to be great to watch for the next couple of years."

It's no surprise to Daniels that players such as Morris and other members of the linebacking corps are able to step into the game with little issue. Daniels said their success stems from the Iowa coaching staff preaching a "Next Man In" mentality.

"That helps us build such a family atmosphere here," the junior defensive lineman said. "There is no difference between a true freshman who's right out of high school and a fifth-year senior All-American. Like Adrian [Clayborn] and James [Morris] — there's no difference between the two. We view everybody the same, and when we do it like that, it makes guys more comfortable to be out on the field and to take care of their business."

What's next?

With the next three games against spread-style offenses, the Hawkeyes could be forced to play more 3-4 defenses to combat the quick passing attacks.

It was a formation Iowa successfully utilized against Michigan State, holding the Spartan offensive attack to only one 20-plus yard pass play and its lowest scoring output of the season.

Ferentz said not using the 3-4 could put the Hawkeyes at a disadvantage because there's no reason to rush a lot of defenders if the quarterback is going to quickly throw the football.

"It's been effective for us," Ferentz said. "The bad news is it takes four [line]backers instead of three. Every time I look at our depth chart, we keep going the wrong way on numbers."

Those numbers remain in constant flux. Seven different linebackers played against Michigan State, including Ross Petersen — a fifth-year walk-on who had yet to record a tackle before this season.

Both Hunter and Tarpinian could return to the field this week. But Ferentz wouldn't divulge further details.

Despite the questions, the group remains resilient. For Iowa, setbacks only lead to opportunities for others. And those who have stepped in have shown they're capable of filling the role.

The injured players remain an important part of the defense. They've worked with teammates in the film room and on the practice field to teach the younger, less experienced players.

"We're just all making sure we stay in it mentally, staying positive," Tarpinian said on Oct. 30. "Whoever is going to be in there, we expect them to do a good job and get things done."

That's the question. Who will be in there against Indiana? Northwestern? Ohio State?

The answer: Whoever's healthy.

"We'll just see A) who's standing by Thursday and B) who looks like he knows what he's doing," Ferentz said, pausing yet again, hoping an answer came to his head. "The first requisite is they've got to be standing."

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