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Linebacker trio a lock to play in NFL jerseys?

[ 0 ] May 4, 2014 |

James Morris has been awarded more than $30,000 in postgraduate scholarships.

“Hopefully, I won’t need them for a while,” Morris said.

The Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient, academic all-American, political science major and former Iowa linebacker would rather be in an NFL jersey than sitting in a classroom this fall.

And in some ways, the continuing education on the football field might be more taxing. The student-athlete tag he lived with for four years as a Hawkeye has been cut in half. Football, the means to an education, is now a potential profession.

“I guess there’s a little more riding on it,” said Morris, who became the sixth player in Iowa history to record 400 career tackles. “Because if you’re not cutting it on the field, you’re going to be looking for work. That component is reality, and I don’t think you can hide from it. But I don’t think it’s going to change my approach. I’m just going to try and do the same things I’ve always done — show up, be a good person and give it my all. I hope that is good enough. And if it’s not, there’s really not much else I can do.”

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Iowa senior linebackers Anthony Hitchens, from left, James Morris and Christian Kirksey pose during the Hawkeyes’ media day on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. (Iowa City Press-Citizen File Photo)

Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey are all in the same place in their careers. Iowa’s highly successful senior linebacking trio is trying to make the transition to the NFL. The draft starts Thursday and ends Saturday.

“They’ve really positioned themselves to be attractive to NFL teams,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They’re all going to get opportunities. And what they do with that opportunity is what it’s all about. I’d really be surprised if the three of them don’t have nice careers. They’re really good football players, they’re great guys and good leaders.”

With 19, Iowa has had more players drafted than any Big Ten school since 2010. The list includes first-rounders Bryan Bulaga (2010), Adrian Clayborn (2011) and Reilly Reiff (2012).

This year’s class is missing first-round attention. But Ferentz’s pro-style approach to the game has made plenty of his former players successful in the NFL.

Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz is expected to be the first Hawkeye selected. Most projections have him going in the third or fourth rounds.

“In the years to come, he’s going to have a really good career in the NFL,” Ferentz said.

Kirksey is projected by most draft analysis websites to go in the fourth round.

“I’ve always wanted to be in this position, to be drafted,” Kirksey said.

Morris has been projected to go in the sixth or seventh rounds. Hitchens is seen as a late-round pick or a free agent.

“I’m just blessed to be in this position, to have a chance to go to the next level,” Hitchens said.

Offensive linemen Brett Van Sloten and Conor Boffeli, defensive back B.J. Lowery and placekicker Mike Meyer are among the Hawkeyes expected to be in the free-agent pool.

All three linebackers had more than 100 tackles as seniors, the first time in program history that has happened. All three continue to train under strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle; all three will leave Iowa City with their degrees. Graduation is May<TH>17.

“Right now we’re training, but we’re not on a football team,” Kirksey said. “Just waiting to see what happens. It will be an emotional day. I’m just going to cherish every moment of it.”

Hitchens said the pre-draft workouts under Doyle have changed little from his days as a Hawkeye.

“We run an NFL program here, so everything is pretty much the same,” Hitchens said. “Maybe a little more intensity, maybe one or two more reps.”

Like his teammates, Hitchens heads into this draft with a sense of anticipation about his football future.

“It’s a bigger transition from high school to college than it will be from college to professional,” Hitchens said. “That’s what I’ve been hearing from a lot of players. It’s just getting back to technique and basic football.”

Until their careers take them in different directions, Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens provide motivation for each other in Doyle’s weight room.

“We’re always going to be best friends,” Kirksey said. “They say that when you come to college, you meet your best friends for life. We keep trying to push each other, like we were playing for Iowa for another season. We’re trying to push each other to the next level.”

PRIDE IN FLIPPING THE SCRIPT

Now that he’s had time to reflect on Iowa’s 2013 season, linebacker James Morris takes pride in the fact that the Hawkeyes flipped a 4-8 season to 8-5 and a bowl game.

“There weren’t a lot of expectations for us at the beginning of the season, and we knew that,” Morris said. “We felt like we had a team that could be pretty good and compete with teams on a national level, and I think we did that for the most part.

“Were we a perfect team? Are we going to be one of the greatest teams in Iowa history? No, we’re not. But we were a bunch of guys who were close. We played for each other. And we tried to do the best we could in terms of getting the program on the right track.”

Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey leave big shoes to fill at linebacker in 2014. Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry are penciled in as their replacements.

“The only thing they don’t have is experience,” Morris said. “And it’s not their fault. That’s something you have to go out and get the hard way. They’ll do that, and they’ll be fine. There’s going to be lumps and bumps and mistakes and things like that. But they’ll just play through it. Hopefully they’ll have the leadership … to overcome that adversity that’s going to be there.”

FERENTZ ON HIS

THREE DEPARTING LINEBACKERS

On James Morris: “James has done a tremendous job on the field, getting thrown in there as a true freshman against Penn State on national television (in 2010) and playing extremely well. He’s done a fantastic job in the classroom, garnering a lot of academic scholarships.”

On Christian Kirksey: “One of the unsung heroes on our football team. Christian plays a position that doesn’t maybe rack up as many stats as the average linebacker, although he did a good job of that. Just an unbelievable human being. A tremendous football player.”

On Anthony Hitchens: “He came to Iowa as a running back and safety, and we weren’t quite sure where he’d end up playing for us. He settled in at linebacker. He played a little as a freshman. He played as a sophomore, but had some injury challenges. Then he made a billion tackles as a junior. He really came into his own (last) spring, and played fantastic football for us this past season.”

— Rick Brown

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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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