The Forgotten Linebacker
July 3, 2012
Editor's Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa's Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.
Morris and Kirksey combined for 220 stops (110 apiece) in 2011, giving the Hawkeyes one of the top returning linebacker duos in the Big Ten Conference. Hitchens finished with 25 tackles during his sophomore season that was shortened by injury.
Hitchens is now penciled in as a starter at the weak-side linebacker position that was occupied by Tyler Nielsen during the second half of the 2011 season.
"I am looking forward to being a starter, but I am not focusing on that right now," said Hitchens, a 6-foot-1, 224-pound Ohio native. "I am preparing myself like a starter. I am still learning, everybody should always be learning."
Hitchens was productive early in his sophomore season. He had 13 tackles in the first two games -- victories over Tennessee Tech and Pittsburgh -- before missing five games because of injury; he had six stops the final five games.
In an effort to make a seamless transition to the weak-side position, Hitchens is utilizing Morris and Kirksey's knowledge.
"James has a lot of game experience," said Hitchens. "He has been playing since his freshman year. Christian has great footwork, so I am trying to take the game experience from James and the footwork from Christian to help me to be the best player that I can be."
In the Iowa defense, the weak-side linebacker is routinely out in pass coverage. Hitchens has been focusing on honing up his coverage skills during the spring and summer voluntary workouts.
"I have been doing footwork drills, working on back-pedaling and my passing defense," he said. "I am also trying to be able to read offenses before they make their audibles, checks and running plays."
Hitchens hasn't seen much change schematically with the UI defense under 13-year defensive backs coach and first-year defensive coordinator Phil Parker aside from the level of aggressiveness.
"It's the same defense, but we're a little more man and a little more blitzes," he said. "I think that fits the type of linebackers we have. That's kind of my nature, I like being aggressive. I am more of a downhill player."
Hitchens has been impressed with first-year linebackers coach LeVar Woods' transition from administrative assistant to a full-time assistant coach, and what he brings to his position group.
"He pays attention to detail a lot, like finishing, getting across the line and starting in a linebacker stance," he said. "He carries us and treats us like men, and when it is all said and done, he's going to be a great coach here."
Hitchens knows he, along with Morris and Kirksey, will have to shoulder more leadership responsibilities on a young Hawkeye defense.
"The linebackers always try to lead, they run your defense," he said. "We've grown a lot since spring, and we're coming together. We're taking steps in the right direction."
The Hawkeyes open the season Saturday, Sept. 1, against Northern Illinois in Chicago's Soldier Field. The game begins at 2:30 p.m. (CT) and will be televised on ESPNU.