Aug 29, 2013
Editor's Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa's September issue of Hawk Talk Monthly, an e-magazine that offers an inside look at the University of Iowa and its 24 Hawkeye sports programs. To read the entire publication click HERE.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Interlaced among the most successful teams in University of Iowa football lore are effective linebackers who shared the field together. Their names, when recited in sequence, roll off the tongue and sound odd to mention one without the others: Angerer, Edds, Hunter.
The names snap in sequence like the burst of popping pads: Greenway, Hodge, Steen.
And their mention jogs memories for Hawkeye fans who know history like they know the program's biggest and best hitters: Foster, Quast, Puk.
Now, in the pedigree of Rose Bowl legends Station and Davis, the Hawkeyes have a new set of names to lead the defense. Names that are counted on to lift the Hawkeyes from a 4-8 season and return them to postseason brilliance.
"If you look at most of our really good teams, we have had great linebacker play and that is critical in any defensive unit," UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "The thing I'm most excited about is that they played well and at a pretty high level last year, but we saw them continue to grow and develop this past spring. They had their foot on the gas, they were working to improve their individual play, but they were also working hard to be leaders."
The last time the Hawkeyes compiled double-digit victories was in 2009 with Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Jeremiha Hunter playing linebacker. The trio of Hitchens, Kirksey and Morris could be as formidable.
The three come from Solon, Iowa, St. Louis, Missouri and Lorain, Ohio. They all played as true freshmen in 2010, although for Hitchens, linebacker is his third position.
"Hitch is quiet and crazy," UI linebackers coach LeVar Woods said. "James is a little more vocal and I have gone on record as saying I wouldn't be surprised if he became President of the United States. Christian is the funny one. He's the guy with the energy to get everyone laughing and gets everyone going."
Morris, from nearby Solon, Iowa, grew up idolizing Greenway and Hodge, then Angerer and Edds. He watched with wide eyes as his linebacker heroes took the field and helped the Hawkeyes to 11 wins in 2002, 10 in 2003 and 2004, and 11 in 2009. To Morris, his group has its work cut out for it before mentioning them in the same breathe.
"If you look at most of our really good teams, we have had great linebacker play and that is critical in any defensive unit. The thing I'm most excited about is that they played well and at a pretty high level last year, but we saw them continue to grow and develop this past spring. They had their foot on the gas, they were working to improve their individual play, but they were also working hard to be leaders."
UI head football coach
In three seasons with Hitchens, Kirksey and Morris on the roster, the Hawkeyes have played 38 games and they own a won-loss record of 19-19 overall, 1-1 in bowl games.
Jim Reid is in his first season as assistant coach at the UI. Woods works with outside linebackers, Reid concentrates on the inside. During his two most recent stops with the Miami Dolphins and the University of Virginia, Reid tutored Joey Porter, Jason Taylor, Steve Greer, and former Hawkeye defensive end Matt Roth.
"They are great, great, great young men," Reid said of Hitchens, Kirksey and Morris. "They are terrific. It's a hard-working group, and it's great to see all those guys come together to form a family. They are a focused group."
When Reid talks about the Hawkeye linebackers, he emphasizes group. The seniors might be the bread, but the others are butter and jam.
"You have to go into Quinton Alston, Marcus Collins, Cole Fisher, Laron Taylor, John Kenny," Reid said. "All of them are as strong a group as I have ever been around. I'm talking about in the weight room, their work ethic, on the field, their character. You can't ignore any of those phases."
Like most defensives, the Hawkeye linebackers consistently reside at the top of the tackle chart. Last season, Hitchens was the team leader with 124 stops in 11 games, followed by Morris (113), and Kirksey (95). The three combined for 18 tackles for loss and 4 ½ sacks.
"The defense makes you good," Kirksey said. "The defensive line opens gaps for you, the defensive backs don't let anything past their heads, so as a defense, we all work together and certain plays will come to certain individuals."
Kevin Worthy, Fred Barr and Steen passed their knowledge to Greenway and Hodge; Hunter helped Hitchens, Kirksey and Morris. Now it's time for the current senior linebackers to pass the torch -- and knowledge -- to the rest of the talented group.
"I was pretty raw when I got here and those three took me under their wings and taught me everything about the defense and the Iowa way," Alston said. "It has been great sitting in the film room, bouncing ideas off them and seeing what they have to say. It has furthered my progression a lot faster than if they weren't here."
Hitchens arrived to the party a little later than Kirksey and Morris. He said his moves from safety-to-running back-to-linebacker forced him to "grow up quicker than the average college player."
The move has paid off. His 11.27 tackles per game in 2012 were the sixth-best of any NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision player.
"It has been a ride, but I'm thankful for where I am," Hitchens said. "We know each other's abilities and what plays we can and can't make. We're on the same page all the time, so it helps to play together for two, three years now."
Being teammates off the field has aided in their progress and success. Morris says they are all close friends. Kirksey says the trio has fun and is "goofy at the same time." Hitchens feels chemistry.
"We all have different characteristics and personalities," Kirksey said. "We're all kids trying to have fun and improve our football. We came in together with the same goal to play for the University of Iowa and win a championship. That made us come together as a group, and as friends. Having experiences off-the-field with people you come in with builds a better bond, too."
With a combined 66 starts, this group of linebackers is frequently on the same page.
"Things are pretty seamless when we're out there in terms of communicating," Morris said. "We know how to communicate with each other verbally and nonverbally, and it's a luxury to be able to do that. This is something I cherish and hopefully it translates to some good play."
While age and experience have merit on a football field, so does the bond between players.
"It's not just that they are a senior group," Reid said. "They're a senior group of friends. That makes a big difference."