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Iowa Hawkeyes LBs look to strengthen NFL draft credentials

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
LB James Morris has been highly productive throughout his career with the Hawkeyes.

Iowa seniors Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris -- who make up one of the most experienced and productive linebacker trios in the nation -- will be making their final home start Saturday when Michigan comes calling.

Each of the trio is among the top nine tacklers in the Big Ten, and each has a shot at leading the league in tackles. In addition, each is an NFL prospect.

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The linebackers should feast Saturday on a sluggish Michigan offense. While the Wolverines are averaging 383.3 yards per game, that number is skewed by a 751-yard output against Indiana's beyond-awful defense and by some big games in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Michigan has managed just 708 yards combined in its past three games, including just 70 rushing yards. The concern for Iowa is whether its offense, which also has struggled at times this season, can be productive.

After two seasons as a reserve, Hitchens (6-foot-1, 233 pounds) started for the first time last fall and led the Big Ten with 124 tackles. He leads the team and is fourth in the league with 87 stops this season, seven behind leader Jonathan Brown of Illinois. Despite his productivity, Hitchens probably is the worst NFL prospect among the trio, though "worst" is a relative team. He has had some injury issues throughout his career and though he runs well, he hadn't been a big-play guy until this season; he is tied for the team lead with 10 tackles for loss.

Morris (6-2, 240), the middle linebacker, has been a starter since he set foot on campus in 2010. He is second on the team and tied for seventh in the league with 81 tackles; he has 374 career stops, which ranks fourth among all active players. He also leads the team with five sacks and is tied for the team lead with 10 tackles for loss, giving him 19 in the past two seasons. He is especially tough against the run and has good instincts. But he lacks quickness and can struggle in space; still, he also has three interceptions this season.

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Kirksey (6-2, 235), a three-year starter, might be the best NFL prospect among the trio because of his athleticism. He is third on the team and tied for ninth in the league with 80 tackles. Kirksey doesn't have any sacks but he does have six quarterback hurries; he also is the most advanced in terms of coverage skills among the starting trio.

The interior of Michigan's offensive line has been a mess of late, so expect some flash plays from Morris. While Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is a good athlete, he doesn't have the escapability of predecessor Denard Robinson and also is turnover-prone. In other words, if Iowa can get into Gardner's face, he will toss up more than a few ill-advised passes.

Iowa (6-4) will play in a bowl and still has a shot at a nine-win season, though seven or eight wins are more likely than nine. At the same time, if the Hawkeyes lose Saturday, a second consecutive losing season could be in the offing, and you wonder if coach Kirk Ferentz could survive that.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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