IOWA CITY — You could make an excellent argument for Anthony Hitchens in the underdog role in his days as a Hawkeye.
The senior from Lorain, Ohio, came to Iowa City as a running back who planned to move to safety. Then, halfway through his freshman season in 2010, Hitchens moved back to running back because Iowa ran dangerously low. Oddly, he finished 2010 on the field as a nickel safety in Iowa’s Insight Bowl victory over Missouri.
He spent his sophomore year as special teamer and backup. An injured knee hindered his playing time. Hitchens went boom his junior year. He led the Big Ten with 11.27 tackles a game. Still, it was only “kind of” a boom. Hitchens lacked big impact numbers, like tackles for loss, sacks, the kind of mayhem numbers that get a linebacker noticed. He wasn’t satisfied with his overall game.
“It was more like an up-and-down season,” Hitchens said. “I needed to be more of a complete player. My focus was just being consistent this year.”
Despite the tackle numbers, Hitchens wasn’t a named all-Big Ten. He had only 5.5 tackles for loss, one sack, no passes defended and no forced turnovers.
As a senior, Hitchens was mayhem. He finished with 13 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception (first of his career against Nebraska), defended two passes, had four QB hurries and forced two fumbles, including an incredible one-man effort against Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner to seal Iowa’s 24-21 victory.
The senior weakside linebacker again led the team in tackles. This year, the honors followed. Hitchens was named second-team all-Big Ten on the coaches ballot, but ask him which award meant the most to him and he’ll quickly tell you it was team MVP for defense.
Hitchens ran a solid campaign. The insiders saw the work he put in to improve his game. When the votes were cast, Hitchens edged out fellow linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey.
It was kind of a shocker, at least to Hitchens, who thought Morris and Kirksey were neck-and-neck for MVP.
“Honestly, that’s what was going through my head. James was a four-year starter,” Hitchens said. “Chris was a three-year starter. They’ve done a lot for this program, more than I have in my two years. I definitely thought it’d be one of them. I was humbled and honored.”
Morris and Kirksey were totally good with this, by the way.
“I voted for him,” Kirksey said. “Anthony deserves to be MVP. You can watch film, you can see watching the games, you can see the type of plays he created and the type of plays we needed.
“The forced fumble in the Michigan game, the interception in the Nebraska game, those are the types of plays. He deserves to be MVP. He worked his butt off in the offseason. All of that work showed up during the season. He deserves to win the trophy.”
There is a trophy. “Got a statue with a football and a jersey on it, with my name on the back. It’s a pretty cool deal,” Hitchens said with a laugh.
“It means a lot that my teammates voted for me,” said Hitchens, who has 102 tackles going into Iowa’s Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against LSU. “I have to give a lot of credit to the other two linebackers. They made my job easier, and the defensive line. It’s a great honor and I’m humbled by it. I want to thank my teammates and coaches for voting for me.”
The insiders — we’re talking Kirksey and Morris, who’ve had a front-row seat to the jump Hitchens made from ’12 to ’13 — know.
“We see him every day and know what kind of player he is,” Morris said. “Hopefully, this is something that maybe people on the outside will take notice and pay closer attention and see him for the great player that he is. That’s what I hope for.”
A whole new crew of linebackers will roll in next year. On his radio show last week, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said if the Hawkeyes had a game tomorrow — he stressed there is not a game tomorrow — that senior-to-be Quinton Alston would start at middle linebacker, Reggie Spearman would be weakside and Travis Perry has the inside track to replace Kirksey at outside linebacker.
Hitchens hopes he helped set an example.
“I’m glad I can be here to lead the young guys, the ones who look up to me and the ones who voted for me,” Hitchens said smiling. “I’m sure they [Morris, Kirksey] had just as many votes or were really close to me. I’m just honored.”
Don’t take these postseason banquet awards for granted. They really do seem to mean something.