CHICAGO – Iowa linebacker James Morris talked about a range of topics during the two hours reporters had to probe his mind at the Big Ten football media days Thursday.
One such topic came with a notice, though.
Morris agreed to address why he has become a lightening rod for criticism for his play on the field, but only this one time.
“I really don’t like to address this, but I’ll address this one time,” Morris said. “I think that players ultimately are judged by their records. And that’s fair. And I’m not going to sit there and say I’m this or I’m that.
“But in my opinion, you line me up next to people that are what we would consider the great players or the good players or the guys that I should be more like, if you go down the numbers and you look at the production I think there are more similarities than there are differences.
The numbers do support Morris’ claim, including that he has started 29 games in his career dating back to his true freshman season in 2010. The Solon native also ranked third in the Big Ten and tied for 31st nationally in tackles per game last season at 9.4.
Morris was named a permanent captain on defense last season and was the recipient of both the Hayden Fry “Extra Heartbeat” Award and the Players Choice Award on defense.
He also has been named to several 2013 preseason watch list’s, including the Lott Impact Watch List and the Bednarik Award preseason Watch List, and was named preseason second team all-Big Ten by Athlon Sports and Phil Steele.
So it’s not as if Morris is being overlooked.
The problem is that Morris played for an Iowa team that lost its final six games last season to finish 4-8. It was Iowa’s worst record since the 2000 season.
Unfortunately for Morris, somebody has to take the blame when things unravel.
Morris told reporters that he hated talking about this subject, and that’s understandable because he doesn’t want to be perceived as whining or complaining.
But he’s also proud and wants to be appreciated. Morris is confident that his physical ability would match favorably with his fellow Big Ten linebackers in things like the 40-yard dash.
“In those things I think I would perform more similarly than I would differently,” Morris said. “There are people who say it’s a lack of production. Is it? I don’t know. I don’t feel it is.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz seems perplexed by the criticism directed towards his starting middle linebacker.
“I’ve gotten some feedback on that,” Ferentz said. “I just don’t get that.”
“He’s an outstanding football player. If there is anything negative being said about him, I don’t get it. What’s the knock on him?”
The knock on Morris is that he hasn’t performed at an all-Big Ten level or lived up to the hype that came as a result of his record-breaking career at Solon High School. But none of Iowa’s three returning starting linebackers have made either first- or second-team all-Big Ten to this point.
Morris and fellow senior linebackers Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens all have suffered from the team’s lack of success, but critics will argue that they’ve contributed to the suffering.
Morris is often accused of making most of his tackles five or six yards down field, and for not developing into a Chad Greenway-like player.
But in defense of Morris, he has been slowed by injuries and he played behind a defensive line that often was over-matched last season. It’s also unfair to compare Morris to Greenway, who now plays for the Minnesota Vikings. How many other Iowa linebackers have performed at Greenway’s elite level?
Greenway also had a much better supporting cast than Morris has had at Iowa. As a junior in 2004, Greenway played behind one of the greatest defensive lines in school history, with three of the four starters moving on to play in the NFL.
Morris was so dominant in high school that some fans might have assumed it would carry over to college. He rushed for 6,646 yards in high school and led the Spartans to 41 consecutive victories and to three state titles as a linebacker and running back.
But the jump from Class 2A football in Iowa to starting at linebacker in the Big Ten as a true freshman is a lot to ask of anybody. Greenway didn’t have to do it. He was redshirted as a true freshman in 2001 and then played mostly on special teams as a redshirt freshman the next season.
Morris, on the other hand, was thrown to the Big Ten wolves after injuries had depleted the ranks at linebacker. He made his first start against Wisconsin in the seventh game of the 2010 season and started six games overall that season.
The problem for Morris is that Iowa has lost 17 of its last 29 games dating back to his freshman season. In some ways, Morris is guilty by association and he has poor timing.
“I love our fans, but there is going to be that small percentage of fans that are disgruntled in every fan base and they’re just going to be a little louder when you’re 4-8,” Morris said. “So I don’t take that stuff personally. It doesn’t keep me up at night. I understand where it’s coming from. I want to win just as bad as they want to win games.”
Morris rejected the theory that some fans believe he gets special treatment as the son of Iowa equipment manager Greg Morris.
“I don’t think my dad has that kind of clout,” Morris said with a laugh.
Speaking of Morris’ dad, that’s who you really sympathize with in a situation like this, along with James’ mother, Lynn. James is a big boy. He can take the criticism on Twitter or wherever else it occurs.
It’s not as easy for his mother because despite the fact that James is listed at 6-foot-2 and 240-pounds and wrapped in muscles, he’s still Lynn’s son first and foremost.
“My dad knows football so at the end of the day it doesn’t bother him,” James Morris said. “I think it bugs my mom.”
Fans have every right to voice their opinion because it goes with the territory. And it’s not like Morris, who turns 22 in November, is a kid anymore.
It’s just a shame that it’s reached a point where some fans find it so easy to single out for criticism a young man that has given his heart and soul to the Iowa program.
“I think if you want to have good fans that we have because we do have great fans, then you’ve got to take some of that,” Morris said. “That’s just part of the job. I really have no problem with it. But I think some of that stuff gets overplayed. I have no ill will for critics or anything like that. I accept it.
“But at the end of the day, when it gets to an extreme point, then I think people maybe need to take step back and say, OK, what’s going on here?”
You won’t find anybody who appreciates being a Hawkeye more than James Morris does. He is the Iowa football team’s version of former Iowa basketball player Matt Gatens in how they both achieved a life-long dream of being a Hawkeye.
That doesn’t mean Morris is above being criticized, but he deserves some degree of respect for how he conducts himself on and off the field. He twice has made Academic All-Big Ten and has been named to Iowa’s leadership group in each of his four seasons.
There is so much more to like about Morris than there is to dislike.
Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football