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Can they break out?

Hawk Talk
Senior Hawkeye linebacker James Morris was the third leading tackler in the Big Ten last season. Morris was second team All-Big Ten as a sophomore, and academic All-Big Ten the last two years. (photo by Don Lund)

This is the final preview of Iowa football. This week I’ll look at the linebackers, defensive backs and special teams.

The Hawkeyes could have the best corps of linebackers in the Big Ten.
All three are seniors, all three have started a lot of games and all three are up for postseason awards.
You can start with linebacker Anthony Hitchens (6-1, 233) who led the Big Ten in tackles with 11.2 per game.
The senior from Ohio was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the coaches and media last fall.
Backups include junior Marcus Collins (6-0, 220) and sophomore Cole Fisher (6-2, 228).
Marcus played in 10 games as a true freshman and was academic All-Big Ten last year, playing in seven games.
Cole played in eight games last fall and was also academic All-Big Ten.
James Morris (6-2, 240) anchors the middle. It seems like yesterday that I was watching him lead the Solon Spartans to three straight undefeated seasons.
I have a tough time seeing him take shots from some of those part-time fans who think he should be a three time All-American.
All he’s done is start 29 games, make second team All-Big Ten as a sophomore, academic All-Big Ten the last two years and ranked third in the Big Ten in tackles last season.
Junior Quinton Alston (6-1, 232) backs up James.
Quinton played in 10 games last year and was academic All-Big Ten.
Quinton went in for James last year when he was hurt.
“It was a good thing,” said Quinton. “Just to get my feet wet and get out there on the field getting playing time. This off-season is about to be a big year for us. The linebacking corps is about to take off. We feel more confident about our team. I feel really good about this group.”
Christian Kirksey (6-2, 235) holds down the outside linebacker position.
Christian has 25 straight starts and recovered four fumbles last fall, which tied for first in the Big Ten. He was named the Next Man In award winner last season for the Hawks and was one of only eight players in the nation to return two interceptions for touchdowns last year.
Backups include sophomore Travis Perry (6-2, 232) and possibly one freshman like John Kenny (6-2, 215).
John enrolled last January and was involved in spring practice.
I like Lavar Woods and Jim Reid as coaches working with the linebackers.
Lavar is in his second year and said he is a lot more comfortable going into fall practice. Jim has been a head coach three different times, has 35 years coaching experience and is a high-energy guy.
I see nothing but positives having Phil Parker returning as the defensive backs coach. He will still be defensive coordinator but he has been a solid coach ever since he came to Iowa when Kirk Ferentz was hired 15 years ago.
Iowa goes into this fall with two good cornerbacks.
Senior B.J. Lowery (5-11, 188) is the top left corner.
B.J. played as a true freshman and is a three-year letterman.
Backups include Maurice Fleming (6-0, 188), who redshirted last fall and switched over from wide receiver.
The right corner is sophomore Jordan Lomax (5-11, 190).
Jordan played in 11 games as a freshman in 2011, was hurt in spring practice in 2012 and redshirted last season.
Backups include sophomore Sean Draper (6-0, 180) and senior Gavin Smith (5-10, 190).
Gavin is from North Liberty and played high school football at West High. He played two seasons at Iowa Central Community College and was named second team all-regional for two years.
Senior Tanner Miller (6-2, 207) leads the way at free safety. Tanner has 23 straight starts, played as a true freshman and can’t believe it’s his last year.
“It’s gone by like crazy,” said Tanner, who was named to some preseason All-Big Ten teams. “Not having that redshirt year that first year just makes it go faster. I’m thankful I got the opportunity and hopefully going to make the best out of this last year.”
Tanner says that playing with Brett Greenwood his first year helped him a lot.
“He’s one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around,” said Tanner. “Just getting his knowledge and watching him it made it a lot easier for me to step in and play.”
Redshirt freshman Anthony Gair (6-2, 200) backs up Tanner.
Strong safety is a tossup between Nico Law (6-1, 195) and John Lowdermilk (6-2, 203). Both are juniors and both played last season.
Ruben Lile (6-3, 210) was in the mix last fall as a true freshman but got hurt and redshirted.

Special teams

When you have two of the Big Ten’s best special team players you have a great base.
You start with Mike Meyers, the senior kicker from Dubuque, who has missed two extra points… in his first year.
Since then, he has made 81 straight, which broke Nate Kaeding’s record of 60.
That’s huge because Iowa seems to play in really close games most of the time and one point could make the difference.
As a field goal kicker, Mike is 38-45 (77.6 percent) in his career.
He was 17-21 last year and had 21 touchbacks on kickoffs.
Senior Jordan Cotton led the Big Ten in kickoff returns last season with a 28.2 average.
“It definitely felt good to lead the Big Ten in kick returns,” said Jordan. “It’s a good conference with a lot of great players.”
Jordan took a kickoff 92 yards for a score against Penn State and had an 82-yard return called back against Michigan State.
Connor Kornbrath (6-6, 240) had a Reggie Roby moment at the scrimmage on Saturday, Aug. 17.
Connor hit a punt inside his own 20 and it blasted off with a perfect spiral (like Reggie did) and drove the punt return man back to his own 20. The punt traveled over 55 yards in the air.
It’s tough to come in as a true freshman and hit punts like that consistently.
Conner punted 53 times last year and averaged 37.9 yards per punt. He had six punts of 50 yards or more and he also had 10 punts inside the 20.
If Connor could have 12 punts of 50 yards or more and average over 41 yards per punt that should help Iowa have a successful season.
The Hawkeyes haven’t been picked by anyone to have a good season.
Iowa usually plays better when they are not picked too high.
In 1981 they came out of nowhere to go to the Rose Bowl. The same thing happened in 1990 and 2004.
I’m ready to hear some “Back in Black.”