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Linebacker corps enters final Kinnick game having elevated Hawkeye defense

[ 0 ] November 18, 2013 |
From left, Iowa linebackers Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey all played for the Hawkeyes as true freshmen in 2010. They'll be taking part in their final game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday against Michigan. (Press-Citizen file photo)

From left, Iowa linebackers Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey all played for the Hawkeyes as true freshmen in 2010. They’ll be taking part in their final game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday against Michigan. (Press-Citizen file photo)

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa’s starting linebackers are a collective rarity.

James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens all played as true freshmen in 2010 and never used a redshirt season. All three will be playing their final home game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday when Michigan comes to town for an 11 a.m. kickoff.

“It’s not like we’re sitting around and holding hands,” Morris said of their Kinnick farewell. “We’re really focused on what’s in front of us. There will be plenty of time to talk about glory days, all that good stuff.”

Iowa, 6-4 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten, enters Saturday’s game ninth nationally in total defense. The three linebackers are the heart and soul of that improving defense.

Hitchens has a team-best 87 tackles, while Morris has 81 and Kirksey 80. Hitchens and Morris both have 10 tackles for a loss this season. Morris also has a team-best five sacks.

No linebacker has ever led the team in single-season sacks since Iowa started keeping that statistic in 1986.

“We have a lot of pride in our defense,” Kirksey said. “Right now, our defense is not where we want it to be, but we’re going in the right direction.”

Another big reason for Iowa’s improved defense is the play of the line, a position that has made steady progress all season. Ends Drew Ott and Mike Hardy and tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat all have 2014 eligibility.

“First and foremost, we want to win football games, and having a good defensive line helps you do that,” Morris said. “I think any time the defensive line is good or disruptive, they’re demanding attention from the offense … the offensive line, specifically. And that frees up the linebackers in certain aspects. There’s been a fair amount of that this year. More so, probably, than in years past. I’ve reaped some rewards from that. And I know Chris and Hitch and everyone in the defense has.”

The three linebackers will be joined Saturday by seven other senior starters — offensive guard Conor Boffeli, offensive tackle Brett Van Sloten, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, placekicker Mike Meyer, cornerback B.J. Lowery, safety Tanner Miller and long snapper Casey Kreiter — playing their final games at Kinnick Stadium. Defensive end Dominic Alvis, who is injured and hasn’t played since Oct. 19 at Ohio State, is also a senior.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz calls senior day “a tricky equation.”

Finding the right emotional balance is far from an exact science.

“It’s a bittersweet day for everyone involved,” Ferentz said. “There’s no right answer. If you win, I guess the emotions are good. If you don’t win, it’s the other way around. It really comes down to what we make if it.”

Ferentz and his wife, Mary, have gone through two senior days with sons Brian and James.

“It’s really an emotional day for parents,” Ferentz said. “It’s unbelieveable that way. That, and then the (team) banquet, comes the realization that, ‘Hey, it’s over.’”

Beating Michigan, something Iowa has done the last two times the Wolverines have come to Kinnick Stadium, would give the seniors a fond home farewell.

“It’s just an honor to have one more game at Kinnick,” Kirksey said. “It should be fun.”

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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