Iowa's Hitchens tackles overall game

There are two active FBS players -- Tennessee's A.J. Johnson and Army's Geoffery Bacon -- who registered more tackles per game last year than Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens.

In his first year starting, Hitchens led the Big Ten with 124 tackles in just 11 games. Highlights included a 19-tackle game against Iowa State and 15 stops in an upset at Michigan State.

Yet Hitchens enters his senior year with the Hawkeyes less concerned with those tackle stats and more focused on improving his overall level of play.

"A lot of people just look at the numbers and see tackles, but they're not seeing behind the line, at the line or 10 yards downfield," he told ESPN.com. "Honestly, I don't think I played my best football last year. At times I showed it, but it was more like an up-and-down season."

Tackle numbers don't tell the whole story for a defensive player, which is one reason why Hitchens didn't make first- or second-team All-Big Ten despite his gaudy total. And he agrees that they are overrated.

"I don't think it judges the player,'" he said. "A lot of players could be making those tackles, too."

Hitchens said he got off to a bad start last year with his footwork and fundamentals, and while that improved throughout the fall, he was banged up late in the season. He also knows that only 5.5 of his tackles came behind the line of scrimmage, and he had just one sack, no passes defended and no forced turnovers.

"I need to be more of a complete player," he said. "Not just tackles -- I need tackles for loss, deflected passes, something like that. My focus is just being consistent this year. I'm trying to play at the highest level for the whole season."

There were flaws in Hitchens' game last year, which is why you didn't hear head coach Kirk Ferentz gushing about him much in 2012. But it's easy to critique the little things while forgetting the path Hitchens took to having a breakout season.

He was lightly recruited out of Lorain, Ohio, which sits about 30 miles west side of Cleveland on Lake Erie. Hitchens starred as a running back in high school but played for a small school -- he said his graduating class was just over 100 students -- and so he went overlooked. He attended an Ohio State camp, but that only served to generate some interest from Eastern Michigan. In January of his senior year, he was all set to commit to the only FBS school that was offering him a scholarship: Akron. But then Iowa called on a Tuesday, he visited Iowa City the following weekend and he'd found a home.

The Hawkeyes originally recruited him as a safety, as he measured in at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds as a high school senior (he's listed at 233 these days). He played some at safety as a true freshman before working out at running back to help the team's dire need there. He moved to linebacker in 2011 and started to show some promise before he suffered an injury that forced him to miss five games.

So last year, Hitchens said he felt like he was still "going into it blind" when he won a starting job. Then his training camp was disrupted when his adopted father needed a liver transplant, something that weighed heavily on his mind in the preseason. (The good news: the transplant was a success, and Brad Anderson is feeling good again, Hitchens says).

And while Hitchens might have made mistakes last season, he also displayed the speed and athleticism that made him a one-time defensive back/running back prospect, along with some pop, to make all those tackles.

"That showed that I have ability," he said. "Coach told me the ability is there; I've just got to do the little things like footwork and extra film work. If I take the extra time focus on other things, that will make me that much better."

He's already part of the most experienced linebacker corps in the Big Ten, starting alongside fellow senior returning starters James Morris and Christian Kirksey. They combined for 332 tackles last year, and Kirksey needed just five more for them to all go over 100.

Again, though, the tackle numbers don't tell the whole story. Hitchens said the group is still working to improve this summer and has a long way to go before it can be considered among the best units in the Big Ten. They're also trying to help the younger players behind them develop, as well as pushing each other every day.

"We're always competing with each other," he said. "We don't work out together, but we'll ask about each other's numbers, like, 'What did you get on this today?'"

They probably won't be just discussing tackle numbers, however.