James Morris didn't set a goal for number of minutes played as a freshman at Iowa.
He didn't even care which unit -- first team, second team -- he joined on Saturdays. He simply wanted to get on the field. The linebacker ended up appearing in all 13 games, starting the final six, finishing fourth on the squad in tackles with 70.
"It was a pretty awesome experience," said Morris, who added four pass breakups and a sack. "I feel like I got a good jump on most of my competition. I think it'll pay bigger dividends once the season rolls around and I can apply some of that experience."
Morris knows he'll take on an enhanced role for the Hawkeyes' defense this season. He also knows others will have to replicate his rise as Iowa replaces six defensive starters, four of whom were selected in April's NFL draft (Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, Karl Klug and Tyler Sash).
Iowa entered the 2010 season seemingly with a clear identity on defense, but the unit ended up with mixed results. The Hawkeyes need the opposite to occur this fall -- for a new-look defense to establish its personality and consistently shut down the opposition.
"I feel like we're young, but that's not necessarily a bad thing," Morris said. "We're unproven, and there's a lot of guys on our squad who take offense to that. They want to prove themselves, and I'm hoping people are going to be surprised by what they see with the effort and how determined our guys are to prove what kind of players they are."
Morris began the proving process last season. A rash of injuries at linebacker thrust him into the starting lineup down the stretch, and he recorded 40 tackles in his first four starts.
Like many freshmen, Morris was prone to overthinking things when he first got in games. A National Honor Society member in high school, Morris admits he's "very much" an analytical person.
"You're sort of forced to lead a double life, what's expected of you on the field versus being a civil human being in conversation off the field," he said. "I thought I was doing a pretty good job of not outpacing myself toward the end of the year, as opposed to the beginning, when maybe I was playing a step slow, trying to process everything."
Morris acknowledges he made plenty of mistakes in 2010, but his effort level never wavered. He wants to be a more polished player this fall, especially as he guides the linebackers alongside veteran Tyler Nielsen.
Iowa must build depth around Morris and Nielsen with players like Christian Kirksey, Bruce Davis, Anthony Hitchens and Dakota Getz.
Morris doesn't expect the defense's personality to fully form until the end of training camp, which kicks off next month, but players are motivated to prove themselves and finish games better than they did in 2010.
"A lot of guys on our defense, they're driven and they're determined to improve and create their own identity," Morris said. "Some of them, they feel like last year was somewhat in flux in terms of what our identity was. They’re going to come out of camp with a purpose."