Future is Now for Young Linebackers

Opportunity exists at linebacker with three senior starters departing Iowa after last season. While several veterans will help bridge the gap, the future out the position could be told by a large group of underclassmen.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens leave an impressive legacy at Iowa. Coaches are hoping it reaches well into the future.

The departed starting linebackers from 2013 currently are members of NFL training camps. It's a result of development with the Hawkeyes.

Iowa finds itself reloading the position. The replacements will be inexperienced in game action. The two-deep is filled with underclassmen.

The Hawkeyes brought in three scholarship linebackers last season and four true freshmen arrived this summer. The group could play a large role in Iowa's defensive future. Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens have laid the foundation.

"Kirksey, Hitch, Morris, they were great role models last year. They taught us the way," said true sophomore Reggie Spearman, No. 1 on the weak side entering camp. "Any time we needed somebody to give us a hand, they were willing to give us a hand. They showed us around the film room. They showed us what we were supposed to do."

Fifth-year senior Quinton Alston and Travis Perry, a fourth-year junior, should help Spearman pass along the lessons of Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens. They're listed first on the two-deep at middle linebacker and LEO, respectively.

"We still have a great leader in Q and we all picked up from the three (senior starters) last year," said redshirt freshman John Kenny, listed as the back-up at the middle and weak-side spots. "They taught us a lot and we're just looking forward to going out there and proving what we can do. Last year is last year. We're a new group. We're hungry. We've been working hard. We're all looking forward to it."

Alston and Perry provided strong play on Iowa's special teams the last few years. Spearman joined them and played defensive end in the Raider Package a year ago. Nobody on the roster has seen more than a handful of meaningful linebacker reps in games.

"They've had experience; not as much as you would like and not as much as they would like, but they have experience," linebacker coach LeVar Woods said. "The biggest thing is having experience in practice and understanding how we coach and how we do things and the bar that has to be set to help bring the younger guys along.

"It's a young group but they're hungry. They have things they want to prove. In my opinion, this is a talented group, top to bottom. It's just a lot of them don't have experience. That's what our job as coach is to get that out of them and help them move forward; help them progress as players."

Senior Chad Gilson, a transfer from Northern Iowa, and Cole Fisher, a fourth-year junior, sit as co-backups on the depth chart at middle and weak-side linebacker, respectively. Redshirt freshmen Josey Jewell and Bo Bower, a walk-on from West Branch, also find themselves on the two-deep.

"It's going to definitely be a challenge. You just lost three guys that are in NFL camps. Hopefully the stuff that they left for the preparation time, how to practice, what your work ethic is, how to be a leader, hopefully it trickled down to the younger guys. I'm sure it did," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.

"Quinton Alston has taken over right from there. He's learned from that and he did it last year. I think all that kind of rubs off a little bit and it's the trickle-down effect. Hopefully we can reach that level of play that they had as seniors, all three of them. I think we have a good group of linebackers to take the challenge."

Perhaps the stiffest competition for playing time comes at Kirksey's vacated LEO position. Perry leads the way but missed some of spring ball with an illness, which gave Jewell a chance to close the gap.

"It would have to be a pretty good camp but it's still up for grabs for anybody, I guess. I want to be the next starter so hopefully that happens," said Jewell, who prepped at Decorah.

Said Woods: "Josey is an excellent athlete, an incredibly competitive guy, tough guy, a lot of heart. Those are things you love to coach. He has an innate ability to chase the football and he's a violent tackler when he gets there which is fun to coach. Josey kind of came out of nowhere but he's definitely doing well."

Incoming freshmen Aaron Mends, Ben Niemann, Jameer Outsey and Parker Hesse will put pressure on the returners to perform. They'll indirectly learn from Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens.

"My goal is to get better and better my teammates. If I can better these freshmen by telling them the information I learned last year, then I'll be doing what I wanted to do. I did my job," Spearman said.

Spearman believes he's prepared to be a productive college football player.

"Last year was great. I got all that nervousness out of my system. It's different coming from playing in front of 2,000 people to 70,000. It's a big difference. I was nervous when I first touched the field. I'm not going to lie about it. Now, I got that all out of my system because I'm used to being out there. Now that I got that nervousness out, I'm just ready to go out and compete," he said.

Kenny said the young linebackers watch a lot of film together and hang out off the field.

"We're a close-knit group that plays for each other and play for the team. We have a great defensive line and secondary and people all around us. We always talk about being tough, physical and smart. Those are the three keys that we really go by. We just get to the ball every play, hustle and provide the hit," he said.

And they found out how to conduct themselves watching Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens.

"The biggest lesson is to stay humble. You're time is going to come. If you just work hard and give 100 percent in everything that you do and the best will come," Spearman said.

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