IOWA CITY — Less than two years removed from their high school graduations, linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey have resumes strong enough to compare with Iowa’s all-time greats.
After Saturday’s open practice at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz provided both with the ultimate compliment for Iowa linebackers: he compared the current tandem to former middle linebacker Abdul Hodge and outside linebacker Chad Greenway. Both of which later played in the NFL, and Greenway was a Pro Bowler last year.
“I think it’s interesting with both James and Christian,” Ferentz said. “They’re both veteran players, if you will. If you look at it, they’ve got two years left. A couple of years back Hodge and Greenway were in that spot after four years; that’s where these guys are after three years. So they’re younger in terms of their chronological age but experience-wise, they’re about there.”
Ferentz isn’t quite sliding either Kirksey or Morris alongside Hodge and Greenway on Iowa’s Mount Rushmore for linebackers just yet. The comparisons start with their year’s worth of starting experience — Morris also started a few games as a true freshman — and their production. Each player posted 110 tackles last year to lead Iowa, and they both have two seasons left. That’s where Ferentz is going with the parallel.
“That’s kind of a sign of the times,” Ferentz said. “More players are playing as true freshmen. But I’d expect both of those guys to be good players and be leaders, too. Linebacker is a leadership position. I think they’re both capable of that.”
It’s vital for Morris and Kirksey to take that leadership role for a defense with only four total starters. Morris and Kirksey each finished in the top seven in tackles for the Big Ten last year.
Kirksey, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 221 pounds, started the first seven games at weakside linebacker before moving outside for the final six games. Morris, who is 6-2 and 230 pounds, played in the middle for six of the first seven games before shifting to weakside for the final six.
Now they’re settled into roles away from the weakside. Kirksey will stay at outside linebacker and often line up over the tight end. Morris moves back into the middle and will make the calls. They’re joined by fellow junior Anthony Hitchens, who played in only eight games last year because of injuries.
“We’re the salty veterans of the group,” Morris said. “We’ve played a lot of football, with me, Chris, Anthony and Micah (Hyde) and Tanner (Miller) played a lot of football, whereas maybe on the front side you have guys that are less experienced but maybe a little older. I think everybody brings something a little bit different to the table in terms of leadership. Ours is experience, and we’re going to try to use that and help us be smart players.”
Kirksey is an athletic specimen who posted five tackles for loss last year and added an interception, three breakups, a fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. He understands leadership is now part of the role he must play going into the fall.
“There’s a lot of young guys on the team and even though I’m a junior, they look up to me like I’m a senior leader on the team,” Kirksey said. “I’ve just got to take that responsibility and make sure I hold myself accountable for everything.”
Hitchens (6-1, 224) shifted from running back and safety early in his career before settling in at weakside linebacker. He carries the same mental approach as Morris and Kirksey.
“I think if you’re out there playing, you’ve got to be out there leading,” he said. “If it’s your first year or your last year, you’ve got to find some way to lead. With James Morris and Christian — James has got two years, Chris has got a year, I have half a year. I think we’ve got experience and we’re going to use it to our advantage.”
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