Monday, July 18, 2011

Matt Chandik's Iowa Player to Watch

Since taking over the reins at Iowa prior to the 1999 season, Kirk Ferentz has always prided himself on certain aspects of his team like his offensive line, defensive lines and linebackers. The likes of Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge, Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and a host of others produced big numbers in Iowa City before heading off the pros. The next one to join them is sophomore middle linebacker James Morris, my pick for 2011 Iowa Breakout Player.

Like many of the former Hawkeye linebackers before him, Morris is a tad undersized, but very cerebral, intelligent and quick to diagnose plays. Thanks in part to injuries, Morris wasn’t able to enjoy the luxury of a redshirt, but proved too good to keep off the field. After he racked up only three tackles in the first four games, Morris registered seven tackles in Iowa’s annual win over Penn State and then went on to register seven or more tackles in each of Iowa’s last six games. He enjoyed his first double-digit tackle game of his career with 13 stops in a loss at Northwestern.

Of Morris’ 70 tackles, only 2.5 of them were behind the line of scrimmage. While it’s not a bad number for a middle linebacker, it’s something that will have to improve this season as he undertakes his first full season as the starter. The loss of linebackers Jeremiha Hunter, Troy Johnson and Jeff Tarpinian and safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood means that the Hawkeyes will look for Morris to be a playmaker in the back seven. He’s got the ability, as he showed when he notched a sack and broke up four passes a year ago, and he’s got the program pedigree to do it.

Morris’ biggest improvement will need to be in his pass coverage duties and shedding blocks. Like most true freshman linebackers, he struggled at times in pass coverage, but seemed to improve as the year progressed. At his listed size of 6-2, 215 pounds, Morris might struggle against some of the power running teams of the Big 10 like Wisconsin and Michigan State, but he’s shown that he can get around blocks fairly well and should have yet another strong year. I expect Morris to push for 100 or more tackles with three or four sacks, a few forced fumbles and eight to 10 tackles for loss. Those numbers would put him in the mix for first-team All-Big 10 honors.

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