IOWA CITY — LeVar Woods gets excited when people compare linebackers and his pupil, Iowa senior James Morris, doesn't make the list.
Woods, Iowa's co-linebackers coach, marvels at Morris' intellect, athletic ability and mostly his intensity. That's why Woods is surprised — even angered — when Morris doesn't receive similar acclaim to his peers.
"I think he’s undervalued, under-appreciated," said Woods, who played linebacker for seven years in the NFL. "I think if you were to ask our team they would say the same thing. I think it’s just a matter of time. A matter of winning for us here and doing the things that we know that we can do and that we’re capable of doing and actually putting it on paper, having the good record, having the good defense and all those things. I think James would then be appreciated for what he is."
Morris brings out the best of his fellow linebackers, who all enter their senior seasons with higher expectations than the outside world has set for them. Outside linebacker Christian Kirksey said "an honor to play next to" Morris. Woods said Morris is more developed as a college senior than he was two or three years into his NFL career.
"The way he sees things and the way he understands the whole puzzle is pretty amazing to me," Woods said. "He’s intense as a person, he’s intense as a player, he’s intense as a student. James does nothing halfway. He’s a guy that I draw inspiration from all the time."
Morris enters the season as a four-year starting middle linebacker. He's 6-foot-2, weighs 240 pounds and hails from nearby Solon. He has started 29 games and finished third last year in Big Ten tackles per game with 9.4. But his value is strongest alongside Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.
Iowa's senior linebackers anchor the Big Ten's most experienced linebacking unit. Kirksey, also 6-2 but weighs 230, has 25 starts entering his senior year. Hitchens (6-1, 233) led the Big Ten in tackles per game with 11.2.
They're not completely unnoticed; Lindy's ranked the trio the nation's fourth-best corps while Phil Steele rated them 15th. But not only are they experienced; they're talented and have a football future beyond this season.
Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout for Ourlads Scouting Services, said all three are likely draft picks next spring. Shonka has watched tape of Morris' first three seasons and said Morris currently projects to a mid-round pick.
"All the personnel directors will like his instincts," Shonka said. "He’s very smart, and his ability to use his hands ... I think he does a nice job of using his hands. Laterally he’s very good, he plays very square. He has the ability to get downhill fast and make a play."
Some evaluation of Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens is clouded by Iowa's struggling line play last year, Shonka said.
"One thing that was impressive I thought about Morris was he did a nice job of shedding those blocks," Shonka said. "Because those guards would come out on him and those guys would get there. Normally somebody’s absorbing those blocks up front, but he’d come down in the A-B gap and make plays without getting hit by big offensive linemen."
Hitchens and Kirksey, a St. Louis native, are considered more late-round candidates but Shonka cautions both have time to elevate their profile. Hitchens, a Lorain, Ohio product, plays the weakside and will get more tackles than Kirksey, who plays in space along the outside. Shonka said the players' range and athletic ability are good enough to interest NFL teams.
"Guys like Hitchens, he shows good coverage ability. Kirksey, being a pretty good athlete with pretty good speed, those things alone might get those guys drafted," Shonka said.
As for the players themselves, they're not focused on lack of respect or the NFL. They're universal in their opinion that winning alone will elevate their profile.
"I’d just prefer not to talk about that stuff," Morris said. "I want to bring everything back to the team and play well and win some games."
"People can say, 'Oh, you’re the greatest or have you underrated," Kirksey said. "But we’re just trying to out there and win. That’s the main focus. If you win, great things happen."
Hitchens isn't as vocal as Morris. Leading the Big Ten in tackles last year doesn't matter to him. In some cases, it means his opponents targeted him specifically and he finished plays. In other games he accumulated tackles because the defense was on the field too long.
"I don’t think I played my best football last year, personally," he said. "That’s why I’m out here practicing, trying to get better. We were 4-8; that wasn’t acceptable."
Woods watches his players every day and he believes all three are in the same category as Wisconsin's Chris Borland or Michigan State's Max Bullough. But a 4-8 record earns disdain, rather than acclaim, for some players. In the end, it's about winning, and the accolades will follow.
"You talk about Borland from Wisconsin, they’re on back-to-back Big Ten championship teams," Woods said. "You talk about Bullough from Michigan State, a winning program, a winning team last year. I think that has something to do with it. If you ran them side-by-side, if you jumped them side-by-side, if I had all three of them here, I tell the guys all the time I wouldn’t pick anyone but the three guys that are here. That’s how I believe. Maybe it’s not politically correct to say, but it’s what I believe."