Position Previews: Linebacker

BY BEN ROSS | AUGUST 28, 2013 5:00 AM

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Iowa’s football game against Northern Illinois on Saturday marks the beginning of something new in many ways for the Hawkeye football team.

The contest marks the commencement of a potential Jake Rudock era at quarterback. He follows Ricky Stanzi and James Vandenberg — each of whom started two seasons under center for the Black and Gold.

This season also marks one full year under offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who came to Iowa from Texas in 2012.

But to starting middle linebacker James Morris, the 2013 football season marks the beginning of the end.

“It’s the beginning of the end in a good way,” he said. “I want to make it a good end if I can. We’re just excited to start the season and turn the page.”

Iowa’s linebacking unit is by far its most experienced position group. Morris, alongside fellow seniors Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey, combine for 65 starts over the course of their careers. Morris is the most battle-tested of the trio, getting six starts his freshman year and gaining a full-starting role the following season. Kirksey became a full-time starter his sophomore year, and Hitchens followed his peers his junior year, when he started every game but one because injury in 2012.

But just because Hitchens came into a starting role later than the other two doesn’t mean there’s a chink in the chain. The weak-side linebacker led the nation in tackles for players who appeared in 11 games or fewer, recording 124 total stops.

But despite the effort Hitchens put into racking up all those tackles a year ago, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said that the numbers put up by Hitchens in 2012 are more a reflection of the position rather than the player, citing Kirksey, who played the weak-side backer in 2011 and recorded 110 stops on the year.

“I don’t mean this in any disrespectful way to Anthony, but if Chris played that position, he’d have a lot of tackles, too,” Ferentz said. “It’s just kind of the nature of that position. [Iowa linebacker coach LeVar Woods] played it, Grant Steen — you go right down the row there. By nature, that position doesn’t get involved as much with tackling, what have you, but it’s a really critical position for us to play good defense.”

The linebackers will have their work cut out for them in their first contest, when they take on Jordan Lynch at quarterback for Northern Illinois for the second-straight year. Lynch torched Iowa on the ground, rushing for 119 yards and a score, but he was held ineffective through the air, tossing for just 54 yards.

But while the upcoming season is the beginning of the end in many aspects for this Iowa football team, Kirksey said he doesn’t see it as the beginning of anything. Rather, he sees each game as being the definitive end to his playing career.

“Every time I step on the field, I think of it as my last,” said Kirksey, who will celebrate his 21st birthday on Saturday. “You never know what happens — injuries or anything. I just try to take that approach — every game could be my last opportunity. I know in the back of my head it is my last year, but I try to take it one day at a time and play like it’s the last time with my team.”

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