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Pat Harty: Young linebackers will have big shoes to fill

[ 0 ] December 15, 2013 |

One still isn’t old enough to vote.

Another joined the Iowa football program as a walk-on.

And the third one has played mostly on special teams in his first three seasons as a Hawkeye.

That’s a sobering fact about each of the three backup linebackers on the Iowa football team.

Seventeen-year-old true freshman Reggie Spearman, sophomore walk-on Travis Perry and junior Quinton Alston appear to be the frontrunners to replace Iowa’s senior triumvirate at linebacker, based on the most recent depth chart.

All that’s left before the attention shifts to them is a New Year’s Day matchup against Louisiana State in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.

That game will mark the end of an era at linebacker with seniors James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens making their final appearance as Hawkeyes. The uncertainty caused by having to replace them will be without question the biggest concern about the 2014 Iowa football team.

Not to worry, said Kirksey, who also included sophomore reserve Cole Fisher in his assessment of the future at linebacker.

“They have great attitudes, great skill sets, and as linebackers we’re all taught the same things here, so I feel good about them for next season and how they’re going to play.” Kirksey said. “We’re all around each other all the time. So they’ll be fine.”

The transition at linebacker will test whether the Iowa program under coach Kirk Ferentz can reload or has to rebuild at those three important positions.

“They always produce great linebackers, Kirksey said. “And those guys, if you watched them practice or watched them play, (you’ll see) they’re going to be great players for us.”

One advantage the new linebackers will have next season as opposed to when Kirksey and his two cohorts started their run is an established defensive line from which to operate behind. It’s no coincidence that Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens each are performing at their highest level in a season in which the Iowa defensive line has gone from being a perceived weakness at the beginning to a strength at the end.

A linebacker’s best friend is a defensive lineman who engages blockers because that allows them to roam more freely in search of the ball carrier.

The three senior starters didn’t have that luxury last season while playing behind an inexperienced defensive line that often times was overmatched. The front seven on defense as a result struggled and that contributed to Iowa’s 4-8 record in 2012.

None of Iowa’s three starting linebackers earned above honorable-mention all-Big Ten recognition last season, whereas this season Morris and Hitchens both made second-team all-Big Ten and Kirksey made honorable mention.

It would be asking too much for the three new starters at linebacker to pick up where the three seniors will have left off this season. A more realistic expectation would be that the position doesn’t become a weakness next season.

In addition to playing on special teams, Spearman and Alston are key pieces in a new pressure package that Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker unveiled this season.

“We’ve got some guys who are ready to play and game ready already,” Hitchens said.

Each of the three current backup linebackers became a Hawkeye under much different circumstances.

Spearman, who is listed as Hitchens’ backup at weakside linebacker, was a star for basketball powerhouse Simeon High School in the Chicago Public League, earning first-team all-city and first-team all-state accolades as a 16-year-old senior. Spearman is believed to be the youngest player to sign with Iowa under Ferentz, turning just 17 on Aug. 17.

Asked if he has to remind himself about just how young Spearman is, Kirksey said: “I always have to remind myself. Playing at 17 and going against a lot of great guys and he’s out there making plays as well, you just think, ‘Wow, he has a long way to go and he’s still growing.’ But just the maturity he has now, he’ll be a great player down the road.”

Kirksey also raved about Alston’s potential as a player and about his leadership ability. Alston is from Sicklerville, N.J., which is the same hometown as former Iowa all-America running back Shonn Greene, and was committed to Pittsburgh before switching to Iowa.

“Quinton Alston, the way his personality is, he just takes control of a lot of things and he’ll be a dominant player for us,” said Kirksey, who has started 37 consecutive games and been invited to play in the Senior Bowl.

As for Perry, Kirksey said the Urbandale graduate, who is his backup at outside linebacker, is as good as any linebacker on the team right now, which is probably an exaggeration, but just to say it publicly means something. Kirksey also used the word “workaholics” to describe the backup linebackers.

Kirksey’s positive assessment of the backup linebackers might just be him getting carried away to benefit his younger teammates. Or maybe they are that good and just need a chance to show it.

We should have an answer by this time next year.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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