In 2011, Anthony Hitchens kind of dipped his toe into the game. He was a special teamer, saw action in eight games and finished with a solid 25 tackles.
He jumped into the blender last year.
Hitchens (6-1, 233) finished with 124 tackles, tops in the Big Ten (11.3 tackles a game) and sixth nationally. It was the most tackles for an Iowa defender since Pat Angerer had 145 (!!!) in 2009.
If last season was about getting into the game, this year probably is about respect for Hitchens. Despite leading the league in tackles, the weakside linebacker earned honorable mention all-Big Ten. Also, when the ESPN Big Ten bloggers put together their preseason rankings, they played Iowa No. 7 in the conference despite having three senior starters who combined for 322 tackles last season.
The rationale from the ESPN Big Ten blog: Stats alone would tell you that the Hawkeyes had one of the best linebacking corps around. First-year starter Anthony Hitchens was one of the top tacklers in the nation with 124 stops, while James Morris (113) and Christian Kirksey (95) also ranked among the league leaders in that category. But tackle numbers alone don't tell the whole story, and Iowa lacked the kind of high-impact plays from its linebackers that teams above it on this list produced.
Tackles for loss? No Iowa linebacker made the Big Ten's top 20 (Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier led the conference with 17 and six other B1G linebackers were listed in the top 20). Shazier and UW's Chris Borland were the only two LBs to crack the conference's top 20 for sacks. Interceptions? Penn State's Michael Mauti and Northwestern's David Nwabuisi led Big Ten LBs with three apiece. Kirksey wasn't far behind with two.
So, much as it is for the Iowa program, 2013 is a quest for respect.
Key 2012 factor: Hitchens was the last of Iowa's senior trio to fall into place. The reason was Tyler Nielsen, for the most part. Nielsen was two years ahead of Hitchens and a versatile performer, moving from the outside to weakside his senior season in 2011. Morris was the last middle linebacker standing in 2010. Kirksey started on the weakside before moving to OLB.
You knew Iowa had an intriguing prospect in Hitchens, whose backstory includes a touch of "The Blind Side." The Lorain, Ohio, native came in as a safety, moved to RB when that was bottoming out in 2010 and then found himself jumping into nickel defenses as an extra linebacker in the 2010 Insight Bowl.
"I just need to get better all around," Hitchens said. "I'm always trying to get better. I also need to find a way to get my teammates better."
Offseason factor: Like pretty much every one on defense, Hitchens has a new coach this season. Jim Reid takes over the inside linebackers. When Reid met with the media in February, he didn't give specifics on any of his players (at that point, he might not have known much about them). He did give some insight to his fiery personality.
Here he is talking about the Iowa players since the horn blew last November against Nebraska.
"I think it started the Monday after the last game with maybe a little bit of an attitude adjustment in terms of the weight room and then now it’s just detail and technique, as I mentioned before. There’s a focus here that . . . there’s a focus here that doesn’t guarantee you success, but if you don’t have the focus that we have right now, then you can’t have success. Do you follow me? Did that make sense?"
Makes perfect sense.
Competition: Hitchens is the starter. What will be interesting is who wins the backup. During Big Ten media days, Morris mentioned a pretty good battle going between junior Marcus Collins and sophomore Cole Fisher. That kind of competition will give '14 linebackers a chance to be something, especially with the total makeover headed the position's way.
Why No. 17?: You could easily make a case for the team's returning leading tackler to be higher. The other linebackers will go higher because those positions are crucial. Middle linebacker is middle linebacker. Ferentz said in Chicago that Iowa can't have a good defense with an average outside linebacker. A few offensive players also will go higher because this team desperately needs touchdowns.
Outlook: If Hitchens puts in another high-volume season in the tackles department, NFL personnel departments will take notice (if they already haven't). If he adds some more of the spicy stats, he might even hear his name called in the draft. He can be a devastating hitter. Positioning, reads, technique will be key for him to make this leap, something LeVar Woods, who coached LBs last year and who now coaches OLBs, believes he can do.
"Some of the things that Anthony, that we’re cleaning up some of the techniques and his footwork and his reads," Woods said. "I think coach Reid has done an excellent job with Anthony in this spring, guys that have been around have seen, I think he’s improved.
Anthony has a tremendous amount of ability, and he’s a guy that I think the sky’s the limit for him as a player, and as long as he keeps honing those skills and keeps working on that with his technique and footwork and cleaning up his reads, I think the sky’s the limit for him.
"And we’re excited about him, the things that you had spoke about, with all the tackles he had and being able to compete and finish the way he wants to finish."Click here for an interactive look at the complete Top 45 series.