IOWA CITY, Ia. – It didn’t take long for somebody to mention the linebackers.
In fact, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz was the one who brought the subject up, while answering the very first question of Wednesday’s press conference.
He was asked to list the Hawkeyes’ biggest challenges heading into spring practice, which opened Wednesday.
The question led Ferentz to reflect on the contributions of Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens.
“We were very senior heavy at the linebacker position,” Ferentz said. “You have three guys who not only played very well. But the things they did in terms of giving us leadership, on the field and off the field, was outstanding.
“That’s where I start. How are we going to replace those guys?”
Travis Perry, Quinton Alston and Reggie Spearman will give it a shot.
They were listed as starters on Iowa’s most recent depth chart, and will be frontrunners to anchor the Hawkeyes’ defense when the season kicks off Aug. 30 against Northern Iowa.
“The biggest thing right now, especially in the initial stages, is just encouraging guys to play aggressively,” Ferentz said. “Not be afraid to make a mistake, because we’re not going to lose a game this spring.
“It’s not a crisis situation if somebody blows an assignment or a coverage, at this point of the year.”
In other words: Show us what you’ve got, and we’ll sweat the details this summer.
It’s probably a sound approach, considering Perry, Alston and Spearman have combined for 48 tackles.
Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens accounted for 984 tackles in their careers — helping Iowa (8-5 last season) to rank ninth nationally in points allowed (18.9) and sixth in yards allowed (303.1).
“None of the three of them have really started out and played 60, 70, 80 snaps a game,” Ferentz said of Perry, Alston and Spearman. “That’s the hurdle we’ve got to climb now.”
The early reviews are promising.
Spearman, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound sophomore from Chicago, debuted as a true freshman, playing primarily on special teams.
He also showed up on defense, when opponents were in passing situations.
“He got a lot of work,” Ferentz said of Spearman, “but really impressed us in practice.
“We felt it was worth the tradeoff of taking his redshirt off.”
Perry, a 6-3, 232-pound junior from Urbandale, has appeared in 24 games the last two seasons.
“Travis has been steady since he’s gotten here,” Ferentz said. “Worked hard, great attitude, and been a very, very outstanding special teams player, not only in terms of activity but his attitude that he brings.
“He’s been on the field a significant amount.”
Alston, 6-1, 232-pound senior from New Jersey, spent 2013 as Morris’ backup.
“Quinton is a guy a year ago at this time I wasn’t sure where (he) was going, quite frankly,” Ferentz said. “He had a really good spring. And had an outstanding fall.
“If James wasn’t here last year, I have all the confidence in the world (Alston) would have played really well. … The transformation he’s made in 12 months gives you a lot of confidence.”