Anthony Hitchens grew up in northeastern Ohio, but from a football standpoint, he grew into an Iowa Hawkeye.
The Iowa program has thrived under head coach Kirk Ferentz by first identifying and then developing players that were overlooked by most other BCS programs.
Iowa was among just three BCS schools to offer Hitchens a scholarship, along with Indiana and Kansas. He also had offers from several schools in the Mid-American Conference, but the glamour programs, including his home-state Ohio State Buckeyes, weren’t interested.
And though it’s still too early to call Hitchens Iowa’s next hidden gem, signs are pointing in that direction with the junior from Lorain, Ohio listed as the starter at weak-side linebacker.
“He brings us toughness, he brings an aggressiveness to the defense and he brings a little bit of explosiveness,” said first-year Iowa linebackers coach LeVar Woods, who also played linebacker at Iowa and for seven seasons in the NFL. “He’s an aggressive kid, a tough kid.”
Unselfish and versatile are two more words to describe Hitchens, as shown by his willingness and ability to play three positions at Iowa.
He was recruited as a safety and then switched to running back as a true freshman in 2010 in order to bolster a depleted offensive backfield. He eventually found a home at linebacker.
“It was best for the team,” Hitchens said of switching positions three times as a true freshman. “And I’m willing to move again if I have to.
“But I think I’m good where I’m at right now.”
Hitchens missed five games last season because of a knee injury, but when healthy he has shown an ability to make plays in space.
He recorded 25 tackles in eight games last season, including a career-high six solo stops in the 31-27 come-from-behind victory over Pittsburgh. He also had three tackles, including two unassisted, in the 31-14 loss to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl.
“I think (linebacker) is the most physical position on the field on the defensive side,” Hitchens said. “You’re usually going downhill on every play and you’re bumping with somebody on every play.
“It takes a lot of mental toughness to play linebacker.”
It was clear heading into spring practice that juniors James Morris and Christian Kirksey would be two of the three starters at linebacker after they combined to lead the team in tackles last season with 110 apiece.
The question was who would replace departed senior Tyler Nielsen, who started five games at outside linebacker last season and seven at middle linebacker.
Kirksey started the first seven games at weakside linebacker last season before switching to outside linebacker, where he started the last six games, including the Insight Bowl.
Morris started five of the first six games at middle linebacker last season before starting the last six games at weakside linebacker.
It came down in the spring to who was the third best linebacker on the team and Hitchens seized the opportunity. Morris was moved back to middle linebacker in the spring. Kirksey settled in at outside linebacker and Hitchens solidified his spot at weakside linebacker.
They now form what is believed to be one of the fastest threesomes to start at linebacker for Iowa in quite a while. That should help as Iowa tries to keep pace with the rise in popularity of spread offenses.
“It helps a lot,” Hitchens said of his speed. “The offenses are spreading out in the Big Ten. A lot of teams are fast and using four-receiver sets.”
Hitchens has gained nearly 30 pounds since joining the Iowa program and he now tips the scales at 227 pounds. He’s big enough to absorb the constant pounding that comes with being a Big Ten linebacker, but also still fast enough to make plays in space.
“We’ve been working on that all summer, our speed, and then our ability to get down hill real fast,” Hitchen said.
Hitchens and Morris were both celebrated running backs in high school that combined for over 10,000 rushing yards. Hitchens also had 52 rushing touchdowns in high school.
“We usually don’t bring it up,” Hitchens said of their pasts. “We’ve talked about it a couple times. But it’s not something we talk about every day.”
Hitchens would switch back to offense if that’s what the team needed. But he enjoys tackling running backs more than being one.
“I’m more of a defensive player,” Hitchens said. “I’m defensive minded.”
VIDEO: New Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker talks about the speed on defense
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football