IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Linebacker James Morris has been a fixture on Iowa's defense since 2010, emerging as a star freshman on a team that finished well below expectations.
Morris is closing out his career with one of the better seasons in recent school history - and has emerged as a key for a team on a surprising run.
Morris on Monday became the first Iowa player in nine years to win multiple Big Ten defensive player of the week honors in the same season. Morris was honored for the second time in 2013 after he had 2 1/2 tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and a fumble recovery last week in a 17-10 overtime win over Northwestern.
Behind the experience and playmaking skills of Morris, the Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) head into Saturday's home game against No. 22 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) with a shot at bowl eligibility and a chance to stay relevant in the Legends Division race.
''I'm playing with some pretty good players, and that opens up some opportunities,'' Morris said. ''I'm very comfortable with the schemes we're trying to do, and I feel like I have pretty good experience or a data bank of reference for what other teams are trying to do.''
The irony for Morris is that he's finally living up to the outsized expectations many had for him from the moment he arrived in Iowa City.
Morris was the focal point of a Solon (Iowa) team that won 41 straight games and three consecutive state prep titles. He ran for 2,247 yards and scored 40 touchdowns as a senior running back and had 276 career tackles at linebacker.
Throw in a National Honor Society membership and letters in track and wrestling, and Morris appeared to have all the smarts, speed and toughness required of a future All-American. That Morris was good enough to earn significant snaps and make defensive play calls as a true freshman only added to the hype.
After a strong debut at Penn State, Morris was named the starting middle linebacker midway through 2010. He responded with nine tackles in a blowout home win over then-No. 5 Michigan State.
But neither he nor the Hawkeyes could know that a lengthy, program-wide slide was looming on the other side of that win.
Iowa soon fell out of the Top 25 and finished a disappointing 8-5 and 4-4 in the league. Though Morris would earn honorable-mention All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore in 2011, his efforts were overshadowed by another underwhelming year by the Hawkeyes.
Morris was supposed to help buoy an inexperienced defense under new coordinator Phil Parker in 2012. But persistent injuries hampered Morris's production and the Hawkeyes finished 4-8. Though Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz bristled at any suggestion that Morris had a down year last season, it's clear that health has been crucial to Morris's success in 2013.
''He's fought some injuries behind the scenes,'' Ferentz said. ''He works extremely hard on the practice field. He's unbelievable, in terms of his preparation away from the field...and he's a great leader. He's a great role model for any football team.''
He's also playing at his best as a senior. Morris had eight tackles, a sack and a key fourth-quarter pick to win player of the week honors following a 23-7 win at Minnesota - a victory that looks even more impressive considering that the Gophers are 6-2.
Morris leads the Hawkeyes with four sacks and three interceptions, and he's now eighth in Iowa history with 357 tackles.
The Hawkeyes have a tough stretch coming up, with Michigan and Nebraska looming in late November. But they know they can count on Morris, whose strong final season is the culmination of everything he's gone through with the Hawkeyes.
''The thing about James Morris is that anything he has, he'll use, and experience is part of that,'' Ferentz said. ''He's a guy that goes back and reflects on everything.''
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