James Morris hates excuses. He also really doesn’t like addressing subjects that can be construed as excuses, so if you didn’t catch him at Big Ten media days, you’re not going to get answers on anything that drifts into the “e-word” area.
The 6-2, 240-pound middle linebacker does, however, play a contact position and he has had his share of “dings” during his career, which has included 29 career starts. Last season, he suffered a groin injury in camp that never fully went away.
“When talking about injuries, I don’t like to talk about it,” said Morris, who’ll start the season No. 16 on Iowa’s career tackles list with 293 (just five players in Iowa history have amassed 400 tackles — Larry Station, Andre Jackson, Abdul Hodge, Brad Quast and Chad Greenway). “I think it’s disrespectful to my teammates. There are guys on the offensive, defensive line who are playing with a lot of injuries that you don’t know about. They’re not high-profile players.
“If I was playing injured, and I saw someone out there saying, ‘Yeah, I’m playing hurt, but I have to just push through it,’ I would be like, ‘Just shut up.’ That’s kind of how I am.
“So, do injuries happen? Yes. Do they happen to me? Yes. That’s part of the game. What can you do? You can mope about it or you can accept it and go ahead. One is an option and the other isn’t an option.”
Asked and answered, with depth and perspective.
“I listen to James talk and the depth of his thoughts, [whistle],” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “What award did he win? That political science award? I was definitely not a candidate for that award. He’s just on a different level.”
Morris, who’s been an all-academic Big Ten selection the last two years, earned the Third House Scholar Award from the UI political science department this spring. The criteria include excellence in scholarship, active participation, and leadership in political and civic organizations, along with being a graduate of an Iowa high school.
Key 2012 factor: The aforementioned injury took a bite out of Morris’ 2012. He missed a start for just the second time in his career (Michigan), but he still managed to rebound and play in the game. (The only game he’s totally missed was ’11 Northwestern.)
Still, Morris tied for the team lead with nine tackles for loss, finished second on the team with 113 tackles, had four passes breakups, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
This spring, Morris was asked if he thought he had played his career to his potential. Remember, he rushed for more than 6,000 yards, 100 TDs and won three state titles at Solon High School.
“That’s a tough question to answer,” he said. “I feel like I’ve given this program the last three years as much as I could humanly give. Have the results been what I wanted? No, it hasn’t. That’s part of life and I’ve learned that the hard way or whatever.
“If going 4-8 is the worst experience you have in your life, you’d led a somewhat of a leisurely lifestyle. I’m not all gloom and and doom. I’m focused on what I can do to make this year the best it can be.
“This is an important year, a very important year to me.”
Offseason factor: Morris will have his fourth different position coach of his career. In 2010, it was a combo of Norm Parker and Darrell Wilson. In ’11, it was mostly Wilson. Last season, LeVar Woods coached the linebacker corps. This year, the linebacker duties have split with Woods taking outside linebackers and Jim Reid, hired in February, coaching the inside linebackers.
Reid has worked at eight different schools and an NFL franchise over the last 40 years. He was fired as Virginia’s defensive coordinator after three seasons. The Cavaliers finished 4-8.
“It was a little surprising,” he said. “I don’t know what really happened. I’d never make anything hard for anybody, so I just went ahead and packed up. I had a couple of opportunities. Honestly, I had some great opportunities. But you have the chance to work with Coach Ferentz, I think it’s something you absolutely have to do. He has all the qualities I love that I believe the game teaches.”
When you have a new coach, there are changes.
“For me, something he’s emphasized is us letting it rip,” Morris said. “And understanding we’re good players and we have what it takes to win. I need to take more shots or play a little faster, more aggressive.”
Competition: Morris is the starter. Junior Quinton Alston is the backup. Alston has gained more and more notice this spring and summer, coming from coaches and teammates. During Big Ten media days, outside linebacker Christian Kirksey said Alston is the next linebacker in the game. Let’s go ahead and presume he takes over when Morris graduates this spring.
So, Morris, Alston and the No. 3 is . . . junior Chad Gilson, actually. He’s a walk-on from Urbandale who spent two seasons at Northern Iowa before transferring last spring.
Why No. 4?: I put out on Twitter that Morris needs 107 tackles (doable) to become the sixth Iowa player to reach 400 tackles in his career, and a little bit of snark creeped in. In this regard, it’s almost as though Morris is a starting pitcher with a record of 4-8. In reality, the Hawkeyes were 4-8. No one had a bowl season. No one position or player finished 10-2 and in the Outback Bowl.
There is no schematic for shaking this.
Former Iowa LBs Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway are in that 400-tackle club. They finished their careers with 27 and 31 tackles for loss, respectively. Morris goes into his final season with 15. Just a measure I wanted to throw out there. It doesn’t mean much, IMO.
Outlook: “This is an important year, a very important year to me.”
The defense has to be more dependable. The middle linebacker has to do his job along with the other 10 positions.
Iowa holds leverage and positional defense in high regard. It doesn’t have specialty positions (hybrid safety/linebacker or pass rush specialist). The fix is never as easy as one player.
Let’s leave it at that. See where this goes.
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