April 10, 2013
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- There is no shortage of experience at linebacker for the University of Iowa football team with the return of three-time letterwinners Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey, and James Morris.
Having such a battle-tested trio is a luxury for the Hawkeyes and second-year coach LeVar Woods. While Woods said Hitchens, Kirksey, and Morris have skills to play in the NFL, he is equally encouraged by the progress of younger linebackers like Quinton Alston, Marcus Collins, Cole Fisher, Chad Gilson, John Kenny, Travis Perry, and Laron Taylor.
The blend of old and new makes for exciting times during spring drills, which begin their third week Wednesday. If Woods is correct in saying linebackers are the heart of a defense, the Hawkeyes are in good shape from a cardiac perspective.
"Guys have come back stronger and quicker than they were last year," Woods said Wednesday at a news conference in the Hayden Fry Football Complex.
In Hitchens (124 tackles), Morris (113) and Kirksey (95), the Iowa returns its top three tacklers, and an average of 27.7 stops per game. Hitchens was named honorable mention All-Big Ten Conference by coaches and media and Morris received the same honor by the media. Kirksey and Morris were named permanent team captains on defense following the 2012 season.
And success certainly has not spoiled them.
"Every single practice, every single game, every single instance was a learning experience for me. Sometimes I think you can paralyze a young man when you tell him to do this, do this, do this, if he does that, do this. I'm working hard on letting guys go and letting them play."
UI linebackers coach
The first two linebackers drafted into the NFL in the Kirk Ferentz era were Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge in 2006. The path those two took during their days in Iowa City is still used as a guide for most Hawkeye linebackers seeking playing time.
"Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge came in and earned their way," Woods said. "They were backups, then they were competing on special teams. If he can excel on special teams, coaches can translate that into playing linebacker."
That's where some of the more untested Hawkeyes enter the conversation.
"That's the thing I'm excited about this year, some of the young guys getting the opportunity to play on special teams," Woods said. "When we have three seniors leaving next year, the young guys will be that much better as linebackers in the defense."
Woods works closely in practice with assistant coach Jim Reid, who also lends a hand with linebackers. Last season Reid was assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Virginia.
"He reminds me a lot of (former UI defensive coordinator) Norm (Parker) in the way he teaches," Woods said of Reid. "He has a lot of wisdom."
Woods, who graduated from Iowa in 2000, spent four seasons as administrative assistant with the Hawkeye program before being named linebackers coach in 2012.
"Every single practice, every single game, every single instance was a learning experience for me," Woods said of his first season on the sidelines. "Sometimes I think you can paralyze a young man when you tell him to do this, do this, do this, if he does that, do this. I'm working hard on letting guys go and letting them play."
The Hawkeyes practice three times this week, culminating with an open practice at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines. To read more about Sunday's trip to central Iowa, click HERE.