IOWA CITY — A.J. Derby woke up Tuesday morning as a quarterback. Then he got a call from Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz.
“He called me in,” said Derby, a red-shirt freshman. “I didn’t really know what it was for. It just kind of went from there.”
Ferentz told Derby it was in the team’s best interest that he switch from offense to outside linebacker. Ferentz gave Derby the rest of Tuesday to think about it.
Derby admitted it was a tough choice. Derby, an Iowa City High graduate, was one of the nation’s most highly sought-after quarterbacks two years ago. He spurned offers from Oklahoma, Florida, Miami, Michigan and dozens of others to play for the hometown Hawkeyes. He competed at quarterback in the U.S. Army All-American Game in early 2010. He was listed as Iowa’s second-team quarterback until he received a two-game suspension for an alcohol-related offense.
But at 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds, Derby always had the potential to play defense. His father, John, was an all-Big Ten linebacker and captained Iowa to the 1991 Rose Bowl. A.J. Derby played both sides of the ball at Iowa City High and was an aggressive hitter as a linebacker and defensive back.
Still, Derby had his heart set at quarterback. That made the discussion difficult and decision tough to reconcile.
“I hadn’t thought about (switching positions) at all until Tuesday,” Derby said.
But after talking with his family, including older brother and starting tight end Zach Derby, A.J. Derby became an Iowa linebacker legacy Tuesday afternoon. Derby’s red practice jersey, which symbolizes no contact, has become a relic in the equipment room.
“It will be a lot of fun to run around and make some tackles,” Derby said. “(John Derby) was excited about it. He said he’s going to have to critique me once I start playing.”
Derby showed up at the linebacker meeting that Tuesday, surprising his fellow teammates.
“They keep us pretty much in the dark on things like that so we don’t really know until we know,” middle linebacker James Morris said. “I think he’s a great athlete, and it’s a great move for both parties - the linebackers and A.J.”
It also was a necessary move, Ferentz said after Saturday’s game. The team had several injuries at the position. Starting outside linebacker Tyler Nielsen did not play and has fought through neck, ankle and hand injuries in the last calendar year. Morris didn’t play last week and missed much of Saturday’s game with an ankle injury.
“We thought he might be a guy who can help us out,” Ferentz said. “He can play a couple positions pretty well. I think he’s enthused about it right now. I know he can help us out (on) special teams.”
Derby played on the kickoff unit in the third quarter and blasted Indiana kick returner Shane Wynn at the 15-yard line. Derby pumped his fist, which was scraped up by the time he met the media.
“I was pretty excited when I got out there, and I wanted to make the most out of my first linebacker or special teams play,” Derby said.
Ferentz was prepared to keep Derby at quarterback, if he decided to stay there. Ferentz had made previous position switches that didn’t work, such as Shonn Greene and Adam Robinson to safety. But Ferentz is excited about Derby’s move.
“He was all ears. He took an hour or two to think about it, and he came right back and he had a look in his eye like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to go,’” Ferentz said. “So it’s good to see.
“The thing with all of our guys that have moved if they’re not excited about it, forget it. You’re wasting your time.”
Now Derby enters another realm of football on defense. It’s a different type of strength training and mentality. But Morris said it won’t be long before Derby hits the field as a linebacker.
“I know he’s a smart guy, and he knows football,” Morris said. “If I had to guess, it would probably be something maybe a little sooner than your average guy.”
And Derby isn’t looking back. He’s a defender now.
“I’m going to look forward,” Derby said. “I’m very excited about this opportunity.”