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Bryce Miller: Are Hawkeyes’ linebackers the best in the country?

[ 0 ] December 10, 2013 |

There’s no beaker-filled lab or gaggle of MIT graduates capable of determining whether Iowa has the best set of football linebackers in the country.

When a topic is more subjective than science, answers prove elusive and debatable.

Let me ask it this way, though: Is there another group you’d draft first?

No collection of linebackers has the potential to dictate a bowl game more this season than Iowa when it faces No. 14 LSU and its backup freshman quarterback on Jan. 1 at the Outback Bowl.

In the Big Ten’s Year of the Linebacker, arguments could be made for individuals like Chris Borland (Wisconsin), Ryan Shazier (Ohio State) and Max Bullough (Michigan State). Around the country, there are plenty of stats to support C.J. Mosley (Alabama), Anthony Barr (UCLA) and Khalil Mack (Buffalo).

Iowa senior linebackers Anthony Hitchens, from left, James Morris and Christian Kirksey pose during media day at the Kenyon Football Practice Facility on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. (David Scrivner / HawkCentral.com)

Iowa senior linebackers Anthony Hitchens, from left, James Morris and Christian Kirksey pose during media day at the Kenyon Football Practice Facility on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. (David Scrivner / HawkCentral.com)

The combination of Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy of Stanford clearly sits at the top, too, along with the Spartans’ Bullough and Denicos Allen.

Sideline to sideline at this point in the season, though, there isn’t a more complete group than Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey.

For one, they’ve grown into consistently scary game-changers. For another, LSU is apt to lean on the running game more after a career-ending ACL injury to starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger gives way to true freshman Anthony Jennings.

Want references? Just ask Michigan. Or Nebraska.

Even though Iowa’s linebackers are seniors, they still make strides with each game and snap. The trio dictated outcomes against the Wolverines and on the road versus the Cornhuskers — down the stretch, when stakes rose and the program needed it most.

“Given how much we’ve improved from week to week, I’m hoping we’re able to improve that much more over that extended period of time (leading up to the bowl),” Morris said. “Anything less than that would probably be a failure.”

No matter the quarterback shuffle, LSU remains the only team that beat national title game qualifier Auburn this season — and the lone group to best Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M each of the last two seasons.

Iowa, however, is No. 7 nationally in total defense — the best regular-season finish under coach Kirk Ferentz, as HawkeyeNation.com’s Jon Miller first pointed out. Digging deeper: Iowa has averaged a defensive ranking of 43 in the country under Ferentz and last finished higher than seventh in 1991 (sixth).

Iowa’s defensive line has become solid, but that ranking isn’t built around the Hawkeyes’ secondary.

To sprinkle in some more linebacker-relevance context: Butkus Award winner Mosley of Alabama has recorded 102 tackles this season. Iowa’s group is separated by a total of five tackles, averaging 99.3 each.

As an Outback Bowl conference call began Monday, the first comment from LSU coach Les Miles after pleasantries had been exchanged: “Iowa is a tremendous defensive team.”

Ferentz explained that his starting linebackers charged into the year with “the right edge” — from spring drills through fall practices.

“To me, they’re much better football players than they were a year ago,” he said. “That just tells you they’re thinking right, they’re working right.”

Morris already had built his credentials over time after being tossed into the lineup as a freshman against Penn State in 2010. He’s been sprinting, tackling and diving ever since.

Ferentz said the biggest improvement might belong to Hitchens, which is saying a lot when you consider that he led the Big Ten in tackles (ahead of Borland, Shazier and Bullough) a season ago.

“The guy I think made the biggest jump was Anthony Hitchens. It’s maybe ironic, because I think he led … the league in tackles,” Ferentz said. “He’s a much better player than he was a year ago. I know he doesn’t have as many tackles, but he’s just playing at a much higher level.

“The light switch comes for everybody at a little different rate. He really hit stride this year.”

Hitchens changed the direction of a game, season and possibly a program when he spun off a block to run down Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner with a little more than two minutes to play. Hitchens forced a fumble that he recovered to salt away the 24-21 victory.

That moment arrived one play after he recorded a tackle for loss and one series after setting up residence in Michigan’s backfield on three consecutive plays.

Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason said of the Hitchens play on Gardner: “As good a play as I have seen this year on defense.”

Against Nebraska, Hitchens intercepted a pass and recorded seven tackles. Morris and Kirksey shined even more — combining for 21 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, an interception and a pair of sacks.

Iowa has slowly dialed up more defensive pressure as it has gained confidence in its defensive backs, particularly after the addition of freshman Desmond King. Now, it’s easier for coordinator Phil Parker to pull the trigger on blitzes and cut loose one of his second-line stars.

The evolution of Iowa’s defense has allowed its linebackers to find another gear without fear.

That’s the reason LSU’s offense, thrust into quarterback flux, might be wise to keep its collective head on a swivel when the calendar flips to 2014.

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or brmiller@dmreg.com. Follow on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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