As our venerated leader here at Blogging The Boys, Dave Halprin, has already reported, former Iowa Hawkeye linebacker Anthony Hitchens has found himself in the position of taking the first team reps at middle linebacker due to the loss of Sean Lee for the 2014 season. As Dave pointed out in his post, Hitchens is already receiving the benefit of Lee's experience. Still demonstrating why he is the leader of the Dallas Cowboys defense, #50 reported to work as normal, despite his injury, and focused his efforts on getting the young man who was drafted to be his understudy up to speed on his role in Rod Marinelli's defense.
While Hitchens is demonstrating confidence in himself, he also realizes that he is far from ready to replace Sean Lee. He is realistic about what the next few months hold for him. Speaking with the mothership about the situation he was unexpectedly thrust in to, the rookie addressed the question of his readiness to fill Lee's shoes.
"Honestly, right now, no. but I will get there. It’s going to take time. I’ve still got to get everything down. If we had a game tomorrow, no, but it’s a good thing we don’t. I have time to get better." - Anthony Hitchens
For Hitchens, the challenge is not only to step up and replace the best player on the Cowboys defense during his first year at the game's highest level, but it is also to learn a position that he has not played previously. Although the Dallas defense calls for positional versatility from the linebackers, Hitchens' new job will require even more. As the quarterback of the defense, he will also be responsible for making the calls and adjustments required as the unit adapts to what he sees from the offense.
Although he has not yet been placed in a position to test his ability to run a defense, the team is confident in the ability of their new middle linebacker to learn his new responsibilities.
"There’s a mental and intellectual challenge that comes with certain positions," said head coach Jason Garrett. "Quarterback would be one of them. Center would be one of them. Mike linebacker would be one of them. But we feel good about the linebacker options that we have. We drafted Hitchens for a reason, and we feel like he’s a good football player and has some position flex. We’ll see how he responds to the opportunity he gets." - Jason Garrett
That's all well and good, but the Cowboys still don't know if Hitchens can adapt quickly enough. It is not for a lack of ability to get physical in the middle, that is something that he does well. There are other areas where he will have to improve in order to be successful in the Dallas defensive scheme.
What you get from Hitchens is the physical side of the game more than the athlete. Where he is going to have to make the most improvement in his game will be in the coverage aspect of the position. In this scheme, if you struggle to know where you fit in your zone drops, there are going to be issues. - Bryan Broaddus
The short version is that Hitchens was not brought in to be the starter on day one because he has some things in his game that need the attention of linebackers coach Matt Eberflus and company. In addition to developing his playing skills, the team anticipated that he would also start to learn the intellectual aspects of the Mike role from Sean Lee. While he will still have those resources available to him, the learning curve has just became much steeper than what it was heading in to OTAs. As of right now, Anthony Hitchens is the first-team middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys.
How he responds during the next few weeks will determine how the Cowboys proceed. The team will weigh all options, including moving DeVonte Holloman or even Bruce Carter inside or looking at a veteran free agent or trade acquisition as a stop-gap measure, but ultimately how Hitchens takes to his new duties will have the largest impact on what the front office actions will be. While the former Hawkeye may be the team's "plan B", the team must also now take a serious look at options C and D as well. The rookie is facing a test that few are ready to meet, and the front office and coaching staff will have to prepare for the possibility that a fourth-round rookie is not ready to take over as the Mike, especially when he has not played that role before.