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Hawkeye defense leaning on its linebackers

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Hawkeye defense leaning on its linebackers

The strength of Iowa's defense will be its linebackers, including Anthony Hitchens, No. 31. Hitchens finished the 2012 season with 124 tackles, the most in the Big Ten. Middle linebacker James Morris was third in the conference with 113 tackles, while teammate Christian Kirksey had 95 tackles and four fumble recoveries, which ranked fourth in the country. “They're tremendous team guys, great leaders,” coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Cole Fisher's individual hopes for this season are simple and modest.

“My goal right now is to get to the point where the coaches can feel confident enough in me to put me in for a series or two, just to give the other guys a break,” Fisher said.

That's because Fisher, a sophomore from Millard North, is stuck behind the best unit on the Iowa team — linebackers Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey.

“I'm just trying to learn as much as I can from them, because they're all great guys and they know the game very, very well,” said Fisher, who opened fall camp as the co-No. 2 weakside linebacker behind Hitchens and can also play the strongside position manned by Kirksey.

Hitchens had 124 tackles last season to lead the Big Ten and rank sixth nationally. Morris, the middle linebacker, was third in the Big Ten with 113 tackles. Kirksey, who had 95 tackles, ranked fourth in the country with four fumble recoveries.

“They're entering into their fourth years now,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They're great off the field, too, do a nice job in the classroom. They're tremendous team guys, great leaders.”

In the secondary, Iowa lost NFL draft pick and All-Big Ten selection Micah Hyde, as well as a handful of senior role players who had their moments.

But the Hawkeyes also welcome back three starters, including cornerback B.J. Lowery and free safety Tanner Miller, as well as several others with experience. That group includes cornerback Jordan Lomax, who sat out with an injury last season.

The question mark on defense is the line, which is led by senior right end Dominic Alvis of Logan, Iowa.

“Dom has played,” defensive line coach Reese Morgan said. “He's the guy who kind of holds everything together. He's the one senior we've got. He's been on the field.”

At the other end, sophomore Drew Ott of Giltner, Neb., entered fall camp as the co-No. 1.

“It's not a real veteran group, but I like the group,” Morgan said. “And we've got some guys who are coming along who give us some depth.”

Iowa managed just 13 quarterback sacks last season, ranking 113th of 120 teams in Division I FBS. The Hawkeyes intercepted 10 passes and recovered 11 fumbles to help rank 13th in the country in turnover margin.

“It's just the little things that add up,” Alvis said. “Throw out Michigan and Penn State, and we lost by an average of (4.7) points. Looking back, it's a little thing here and a little thing there. If we can get a stop here, maybe a turnover there, we would have won that game. Maybe a lot more games. That's our focus. Just being more consistent.”

Alvis said he's gladly inherited whatever additional leadership role is required as the only senior on the defensive line. He had 31 tackles last year, including three of the Hawkeyes' sacks.

“There's a lot more chemistry,” Alvis said. “We have a lot more returning starters. We've moved younger guys along this summer just by getting together and going over plays. We're better from the mental side of things.”

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