The Natural - James Morris

The Natural - James Morris

James Morris was expected to play on special teams and hone his craft at linebacker this season. Injuries have pushed him into the starting lineup and the true freshman has excelled.

IOWA CITY, Ia. - James Morris spent a lot of time around the Iowa football program. His father, Greg, the team's equipment manager used to bring his oldest son around the complex as he was growing up.

Many Hawkeye followers are familiar with the story. Some believe experiences like playing catch with former ABC announcer and Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swan at Kinnick Stadium are paving the way to his success as a true freshman.

That might be the case to an extent. It can't explain it all. The kid is a natural.

That's how one makes sense of him excelling in his start against then-No.5 Michigan State last week. He received the plays from the sidelines and in many ways quarterbacked a veteran defense to a dominating effort.

I'm sure Morris might be more comfortable than, say, fellow true freshman linebacker Christian Kirksey. The former grew up around the program and played up the road at Solon High. The latter grew up in St. Louis and probably needed help finding the weight room.

Morris would have ascended up the depth chart if her were from Mars. Again, he's a natural. And he works on getting the most out of that ability.

"He's inserted himself at a very important position," Hawkeye Safety Tyler Sash said. "As a freshman, to control the whole defense; for a kid to come in and stand in front of our defensive line, most kids would probably be intimidated. In stands in front and makes all the checks to all those guys in front. He does a great job of getting everybody lined up."

Iowa boasts a veteran front four made up of seniors and juniors. Morris still was in junior high when star end Adrian Clayborn arrived on campus.

"He's a smart kid," Sash said. "He has to be to do what he's doing. He's also a hard worker. Every time I see him in the weight room he's going 110 percent."

Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz also pointed out Morris' intelligence on Tuesday when asked about the early success. Many of his teammates said the same thing.

"He's got a great personality," Ferentz said. "He's an intelligent guy, and football intelligent. He's a communicator. He's not bashful.

"That's because he knows what he's doing. He's worked hard at it, all that. The older guys have taken him under their wing, too. They're watching tape with him, explaining things to him, showing him how to go about things. It's been a team effort that way."

Even so, Morris has surprised Ferentz. This isn't the scenario that was expected to play out.

"To say we foresaw this, I don't think any of us -- we were all hoping Jeff (Tarpinian) would be our middle linebacker, James would get some on-the-job training, and he would go at the appropriate time he was called," Ferentz said.

James Morris earned the Iowa Gatorade Player of the Year the last two season. That and $.50 gets you a cup of coffee. That usually doesn't mean much when recruiting services put together their lists.

Scout.com ranked Morris as a three-star recruit on a five-star scale and rated him as the 32nd best OLB in the country. Had this kid played in Florida, Texas or California, he'd have been more highly regarded.

It really matter little to Ferentz and his coaching staff, who received a verbal from Morris during his sophomore season at Solon.

"I think it's more so just the way he's wired," Ferentz said. "He's got a good football mentality. He's very serious about it, committed. Excellent student on top of it. That part is equally impressive. The reports I've been getting every week are equally positive. Finds time to do both, so he must not have much social time. But that's OK."

Fred Barr is the only middle linebacker to start as a true freshman during Ferentz. In 1999, there's wasn't much choice.

"You would argue that our program is a little healthier this year than it was when Fred got called to duty," Ferentz said.

There'd been discussion as to where Morris would play when he got to Iowa. Defensive coaches Darrell Wilson and Norm Parker liked him at MLB. Ferentz was sure. Former running backs coach Carl Jackson felt Morris could play RB with the Hawkeyes.

"He is an athletic guy and he has a good football aptitude," Ferentz said. "He could do several things. (Chad) Greenway had that ability too. (Jonathan) Babineaux is a different guy, but he could have played a lot of positions, too.

"We envisioned James to be a good linebacker, but we didn't think it would be this year. Those are the circumstances right now and he has jumped in there in the Penn State game and this game, he doesn't look like he is tippy toeing out there. He is not big eyed. He is out there playing football. That is a good sign when a guy can do that."

Morris collected nine tackles in Iowa's win against Michigan State on Saturday. Ferentz also said that he expected Kirksey's role to increase with injuries at LB.

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