Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The 2008 season has started and that means Iowa players can conduct interviews with out-of-town media again (celebration ensuing). Needless to say, I was very excited to get a call Tuesday night from Hawkeyes junior linebacker A.J. Edds, an emerging star who's as personable as he is talented.
Edds started last season alongside the Mikes (Humpal and Klinkenborg) and finished second on the team with 80 tackles (51 solo). A converted tight end, Edds has brought his playmaking skills to the strong-side linebacker spot and last Saturday recorded a safety and deflected a pass that led to an interception against Maine. The 6-4, 244-pound Edds (pronounced EEds) discussed his emergence as a leader, learning from the Mikes and Iowa's need to move beyond a problematic offseason away from the field.
Are you sensing a greater need to take a leadership role with the two Mikes gone? You're one of the more experienced guys at linebacker.
A.J. Edds: Definitely. I'm kind of expecting more of myself in that capacity, and the coaches are as well. They ask more of me in a leadership role, football-wise, on the field. With the departure of Mike and Mike, it's naturally put me into the spot for being more of a leader, having been the lone starter returning out of the core. I'm trying to do what I can with the other two backers. A lot of guys are splitting some time in there, and I'm trying to help out wherever I can, whether it be guys questioning the game plan or questions about nerves, getting out there and playing their first game. It's definitely been something I've been asked to do and hopefully I'll step into that role more and more.
You sound pretty comfortable doing it. Do you feel like an older guy?
AJE: I've obviously got a pretty good grasp of what we're doing as a team and obviously, as a defense. I'm only a junior, but I do feel like I'm one of the more veteran guys on the defense and one of the guys being looked to, to come up with plays, offer that leadership to some of the younger guys. I'm comfortable in that role, definitely. I've been in a similar situation, coming up through high school, playing as a younger guy. By the time I got to be a junior and senior in high school, I was in a similar role, so it's a position I've been in before.
What did you learn from the two Mikes?
AJE: The big thing I took away from both of those guys is the off-field preparation that they put in during the week. It's one thing to have a coach preach, 'Watch the film, get into the game, know the game plan inside and out.' To have guys like that doing it and to see the success on the field is basically all I needed to see. I knew that was the case, but to see those guys put the time in they did off the field to get ready for the games and to see them play and perform the level they did, that was the big thing I took from them. And then the leadership stuff on a daily basis. They weren't real vocal guys, but when stuff needed to be said, guys listened and guys responded.
AJE: Definitely. Our D-line in general is pretty strong. We've got some talented young guys and they'll be getting better every week. Same thing with the linebackers. The interior defense there is the strength of the defense. Hopefully the other guys will come along and by the end of the season, we'll be hitting on all strides and there won't necessarily be a weakness of the defense. That's the optimal plan. With Mitch and Matt being the two stout tackles there in the interior, that's the strength of our defense.
Are you comfortable playing multiple spots at linebacker?
AJE: During the spring and a little bit in the preseason, the coaches put me in some different situations and different positions. We had guys banged up a lot last year, so it was more of, 'Be ready if it comes to that.' But I am pretty comfortable playing all three spots. With that said, my natural home is the outside backer spot where I'm playing now. It's kind of a hybrid where you're playing on the D-line over a tight end a lot of the time, but you're also playing out there in coverage over some of the wide receivers. All those things combine into stuff that suits the way I play and my abilities.
You had a tip last week that led to the interception for Pat [Angerer]. Is it just your natural instinct to make plays out there on the edge? What is the key to your playmaking skills?
AJE: The big thing really at any spot, but especially playing outside like that, is trying to hustle to the ball and be around the ball. Generally good things happen. It's something that my coaches have preached ever since I was a little kid and then coming up playing football, my dad playing collegiate football [at Indiana] as well, if you get around the ball, good things happen. That's really what my mind-set it. I'm not thinking, 'Hey, I'm going to make a play right now.' I'm thinking, 'Just get to the ball.' It might be the first play of the game, it might be the last play, but if you're relentless and you attack the ballcarrier, the quarterback, whoever it might be, as a defense, 11 individuals doing it on their own, it comes together pretty well.
I know there was a lot of concern in the offseason about where this team is team going, where the leadership is going with some of the incidents that happened. Are you confident all that is in the past?
AJE: I think so. Knock on wood, you hope everything is over and done with and we're taking the right steps forward. You hope that the young guys, especially, are in a position to be open to following. You can't be an effective leader unless you have guys willing to follow. It's kind of two pieces to the puzzle. That's something we worked on. There's got to be guys that emerge as leaders and the younger guys, the less-experienced guys, have to be willing to take the leadership, the coaching and put it into practice. Then the off-field stuff, the team basically goes as your older players, more-experienced guys tend to go. If we have older guys, myself included, show them the way and lead the charge per se, as far as off-the-field stuff, then everything else kind of takes care of itself. Things fall into place.