The ever-invisible outside linebacker in Iowa’s defense is actually an incredibly crucial position.
I think we all kind of knew that.
It’s the sexy “tackles for loss” type of numbers that don’t show up at the position. A.J. Edds had 12.5 tackles for loss in three seasons as a starter. Four years and two ACLs after graduating, he’s still on the fringe of the NFL. Grant Steen was a three-year starter from 2001-03. He finished his career with 13 tackles for loss.
Senior Christian Kirksey (6-2, 235) goes into his second season as starter at outside linebacker with 8.5 tackles for loss. That’s OK, but that’s not job 1 for Iowa outside linebackers.
“That position is invisible in our defense, pretty much, but we don’t play very well if we don’t have a good player at that position,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Chris is as talented of a guy as we’ve had at that position since I’ve been here.”
What does the OLB (or in Iowa staff terminology the “Leo”) do?
In an under defense — Iowa runs a high percentage of 4-3 under — Kirksey is the “leo.” He’s responsible for the strongside D gap and will be in pass coverage. In some over schemes, Kirksey takes on more of a “Will” role. He’ll line up stacked behind a defensive tackle and will go inside or outside based on the call.
You have to be versatile. You have to be a “mobile destruction unit.”
“That guy has to be one of the best athletes on the team. We ask the most of him athletically,” middle linebacker James Morris said. “I’ve played with guys who’ve gone on to play in the NFL and have had those opportunities. Just looking at his skill set, I have to think he’s going to have some opportunities to keep playing football.
“You can’t say enough about the quality of athlete he is, the quality of player he is. They’re just looking for ways to get him involved, whether it’s on punt or on kick off, but but he can only do so much. I think they like him on kick off right now because he’s a tempo setter.”
Key 2012 factor: This will be Kirksey’s second full season at outside linebacker. Remember, he started the seven games of 2011 at weakside linebacker before switching for the final five games.
In his first start at OLB, Kirksey picked off his first career interception. It was kind of a big deal, too, coming in a 24-16 victory over then-No. 12 Michigan at Kinnick in ’11. Kirksey tied for the team lead last year with two interceptions. He returned both — against Minnesota and Indiana — for TDs. This, unfortunately, would’ve tied him for the team lead in TD receptions. No one probably wants to make a huge deal out of that non-stat, though.
Kirksey’s football IQ is as high as it’s ever been.
“You’ve got to know why you do certain things and the things that can go against you,” said Kirksey, who’s 57th on Iowa’s career tackles list with 211. “You have to understand the schemes and why you’re in the position you’re in. You have to understand that your job affects the other players around you in the defense. You have to watch a lot of film, practice certain techniques.”
Offseason factor: Kirksey, a St. Louis, Mo., native, is one of the few players on Iowa’s defense who doesn’t have a new position coach. LeVar Woods coached the entire group last season, but now handles the outside linebackers along with increased special teams responsibilities.
Woods played OLB at Iowa and in the NFL, so there’s a high expertise going into Kirksey’s ears everyday.
And no, Kirksey doesn’t pine for the sexy numbers. He focuses on his job.
“We don’t get a lot of tackles for loss, but if we get lackadaisical, a big play can happen back there,” Kirksey said. “As a linebacker, you have to do your job, so the others players on defense can do their job as well.”
Competition: Kirksey has none. One thing that will be interesting at his position is who’s next? Right now, it looks to be sophomore Travis Perry, who may or may not have a scholarship now (he probably does with three announced departures since spring). Perry (6-3, 232) was No. 2 behind Kirksey for most of the second half of last season. The Urbandale native start out there again this year.
Why No. 5?: Kirksey is a bonafide ball hawk. He had the two picks last season, he also led the Big Ten with four fumble recoveries. He was just one of eight players in the nation with two INT returns for TDs. Being around the ball and taking it away, pretty highly desired trait for a linebacker.
Outlook: Who knows where Kirksey is on NFL draftboards? Here’s where he could go: the Senior Bowl. He’d have to have an impact season, but Kirksey could break through to the Senior Bowl level. That’s the place where NFL teams coach college all-star teams and where the league really gets to know a prospect. Most, if not all, players who are invited to the Senior Bowl are drafted.
This would probably fall into the private goals section for Kirksey. No one wants to call their shot, especially no one at understated Iowa. But this seems like a reasonable and reachable goal.
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