Linebackers key for Iowa defense this season

Defense failed to meet expectations in 2011

Iowa’s defensive line needs to be rebuilt, the secondary has holes to fill in key spots, and all the defensive coaches have switched spots.

Now is as good a time as any for the Hawkeyes’ promising linebacking corps to step up and lead a defense that failed to meet lofty expectations in 2011.

Much of Iowa’s hopes for a defensive turnaround this fall rest of the development of its linebackers. The Hawkeyes return a pair of starters in juniors James Morris and Christian Kirksey, who will be joined by fellow junior Anthony Hitchens in what should be the strength of a defense that slipped from seventh nationally in scoring defense in 2010 to 46th a year ago.

“Linebackers, we always try to lead,” Hitchens said. “Going into spring ball, coaches told us that we’ve got to lead. We’ve got young guys behind us.”

Though the Hawkeyes defense lacks the big-name players it has had in previous years, a healthy Morris seems primed to become just that in 2012.

Morris sprained his ankle early in the Big Ten season and wasn’t able to build on the promise of his true freshman season, when he racked up 70 total tackles after being thrust into the starting lineup because of injuries.

Morris was still an honorable-mention All-Big Ten pick, and if he can stay healthy it’s easy to project Morris as the leader of a defense that could really use one. Morris will call the signals from the middle linebacker spot, just as he did at times as a freshman in 2010.

Kirksey is certainly not the biggest linebacker in the Big Ten, at 6-foot-2 and just 220 pounds. But he compensated for a lack of size with speed and quickness, sharing the team lead in total tackles at 110 with Morris last season.

Hitchens is expected to start as the weakside backer after a promising but injury-plagued season in 2011. According to Hitchens, the starting unit has taken major steps forward since a loss in the Insight Bowl to Oklahoma wrapped up a disappointing 7-6 season last December.

“We’ve grown a lot since spring,” Hitchens said. “We’re competing together in workouts. We’re still watching film together. It’s not just us, it’s a bunch of younger kids, too, to bring them along. So as a group, I think we’re getting better.”

The Hawkeyes should be in decent shape in the back end, with All-big Ten cornerback Micah Hyde and free safety Tanner Miller back and bolstered by two promising youngsters; cornerback B.J. Lowery and strong safety Nico Law.

But there could be plenty of opportunities for Iowa’s linebackers to make plays, because the line in front of the group will be as inexperienced as any in recent memory.

The Hawkeyes lost Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels, and junior Dominic Alvis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee — though Alvis said Wednesday that he will be ready for fall camp. Given how raw Iowa will look up front, it will be imperative for the linebackers and secondary to consistently make plays and take pressure off the defensive line.

“We’re going to have the most experienced linebackers and (defensive backs out there). You’ve got James Morris leading the way, Christian Kirksey out there,” Alvis said. “We’re going to be stacked. I’m looking forward to the guys I have behind me.”

While Iowa isn’t exactly “Linebacker U” like Penn State, the Hawkeyes can typically boast of one of the better units in the Big Ten year in and year out.

Iowa is going to need its linebackers to play as well as anyone else’s in the league if its defense hopes to return to the upper half of the Big Ten.

“There were times last year where we’d have an incredible game, and the next week we’d struggle. But that just showed we had it in us, and we were a resilient defense,” Miller said. “It’s just those little things, being able to show up week in and week out over the course of a long season.”