IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Eight years ago, when linebackers Brian Urlacher of the Bears and Shawne Merriman of the Chargers were dominating the National Football League, a youngster in Lorain, Ohio, was paying little attention.
Anthony Hitchens, a senior linebacker on the University of Iowa football team, was more interested in basketball back then, and Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder was his hero.
"I looked up to basketball players," said Hitchens, who played point guard, shooting guard, and small forward. "Kevin Durant was a small guy, but he worked hard and might be the best player in the NBA. I liked his work ethic."
When Hitchens enrolled at Clearview High School, "he just happened" to go out for the football team. Four years later he had rushed for nearly 4,000 yards, scored more than 50 touchdowns, and compiled 154 tackles and 12 quarterback sacks.
He accepted a scholarship to become a Hawkeye, but just like his career in basketball, Hitchens dabbled with several different positions.
"I was trying to get the strong safety spot down, but I couldn't get a grip on that," Hitchens said.
He moved to running back, where teammates Marcus Coker and Jordan Canzeri started showing him the ropes. That didn't work, either, so Hitchens turned to linebacker.
"Coach (Norm) Parker said we can always find a spot for you on this defense," Hitchens said. "I'm happy they gave me the opportunity."
When the Hawkeyes prepared for the 2010 Insight Bowl (a 27-24 win against No. 12 Missouri), Hitchens was no longer sharing the ball with Coker and Canzeri, he was trying to tackle them. The Iowa linebacker corps was nicked up, so Hitchens saw action on approximately 30 plays.
"I was getting more and more confidence, making plays in practice, getting off blocks," Hitchens said. "Coach was telling me I had a chance to be good here; it helps when your coach is telling you that, and you see yourself making plays. I was gaining confidence and it came natural because I played it in high school, too."
The last two seasons Hitchens has led the Hawkeyes in tackles, notching 124 as a junior and 102 in 2013. He has 18.5 tackles for loss and picked off the first pass of his career during a 38-17 win at Nebraska on Nov. 29. Hitchens returned the ball 18 yards into Cornhusker territory.
"I had a flashback to high school having the ball in my hands," Hitchens said. "It's hard as a defender getting that ball in your hands, so when you get it, you have to appreciate it."
Hitchens was named second-team All-Big Ten by league coaches this season; he was honorable mention as a junior. If there was a team of big hitters, Hitchens would be captain. His favorite collision this season came in the second quarter of Iowa's 17-10 win against Northwestern. With the Wildcats driving to Iowa's 30-yard line, Hitchens pummeled running back Mike Trumpy, who lost the ball and Hawkeye linebacker James Morris recovered.
"Plays like that you never forget," Hitchens said.
At Iowa's annual awards banquet Dec. 8, Hitchens was named Roy J. Carver Most Valuable Player on defense and he received a Hayden Fry Extra Heartbeat Award.
This will be the third bowl game for Hitchens, who saw action in the 2010 and 2011 Insight Bowls in Arizona. The last time the Hawkeyes were in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., was Jan. 1, 2009, when they defeated South Carolina, 31-10 .
"I heard this bowl is great. It's going to be a good atmosphere in a good city," Hitchens said. "We're thankful for the opportunity."
And about facing No. 14 Louisiana State University?
"That's what you play the game for, you want to play the best team."