Hawkeye Football Position Previews: Linebackers


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James Morris talks about football like somebody who has played it for decades.

When discussing the Iowa defense’s struggles last season, he doesn’t use talking points about effort or preparation. He talks in detail about the need to attain a comfort level with his fellow linebackers, so he can know where to funnel a ball carrier. He goes on about the need to “leverage the ball,” which means turning opposing runners toward his teammates, rather than toward the sideline.

That reflects an understanding of Iowa’s defensive schemes that Morris said he is beginning to fully grasp as he enters his third season as a starter.

“I don’t feel like a young player now,” Morris said. “The past couple years, I’ve still been a young player coming up, and I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s good to have some experience to fall back on. A lot of the things I’ve seen now, it’s the second or third time I’ve seen it. There are very few firsts.”

Morris had a rocky but promising freshman season when he was thrown into an emergency starting role after seven games. He struggled in pass coverage but recorded 70 tackles, and he entered last season as a centerpiece of the defense.

But he still appeared a step slow in covering pass-catchers — which wasn’t helped by an ankle injury that nagged him all season. Eventually, the Solon native had to move to outside linebacker, and senior Tyler Nielsen shifted over to the middle.

But Morris is healthy now, and he says the game has slowed down for him. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said his middle linebacker was poised for a big season.

“James Morris is obviously the leader of our defense,” he said. “You want to be strong up the middle, and that’s what he gives us.”

Joining Morris at linebacker are fellow juniors Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. The two outside linebackers are small but fast, each listed at 220 pounds.

Kirksey outran several receivers and defensive backs during conditioning sprints at an open practice on Aug. 18. That speed will come in handy in Parker’s new schemes, which will emphasize man-to-man coverage and blitzing.

“Those guys make a lot of big plays,” Parker said. “We’re happy with our linebacker crew.”

Kirksey and Morris played alongside each other all last season, racking up 110 tackles each. And the pair has so much chemistry now that Kirksey said it “felt weird” to be scrimmaging without Morris while the latter sat with a minor thumb injury.

“A big thing is being able to think more on the field, and trust each other,” Morris said. “When everybody’s on the same page, we play pretty good defense.”

Morris spent one year as a deer in the headlights and another hobbled by an injury. But he hopes to play his best defense yet this season.

“Every day, you try to learn a little bit,” he said.  “Coach Ferentz said every day you’re either putting something in the bank or you’re pulling it out. And then at the end of those days, it’s filled up and you’re a good player. Hopefully, I’m getting to that point now.”

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