- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The only problem Iowa had with playing three senior linebackers last season is that it now has to replace them all at the same time.

The Hawkeyes have six months to find three new starters, and the process of replacing the core of an exceptional defense began this week with the start of spring practice.

James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens keyed a defense that finished ninth in the nation at just 18.9 points allowed per game in 2013.

They’re all gone though, and backups Travis Perry, Quinton Alston and Reggie Spearman are first in line to replace them.

“They all played at an extremely high level. But the things they did in terms of providing leadership, on the field, off the field, outstanding,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Wednesday at a press conference to kick off spring practice. “So to me that’s where I always start. How are we going to replace those guys that have played such a big role.”

Linebacker is hardly the only position the Hawkeyes have to start finding new guys for this spring.

But it appears the most pressing issue Iowa will face ahead of the 2014 season.

Perry, a 6-foot-3, 232-pound junior, has the edge to start at outside linebacker. Alston is a senior and the odds-on favorite at middle linebacker.

Spearman might be the most intriguing prospect on the roster, since he’s a sophomore who isn’t set to turn 18 until two weeks before the opener on Aug. 30 against Northern Iowa

Junior Cole Fisher will likely also get a lot of work at both outside and weak side linebacker, and freshmen John Kenny and Josey Jewell will have their best shot yet at impressing defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

“The biggest thing especially in the initial stages is to encourage guys to play aggressive. Not be afraid to make a mistake. Because we’re not going to lose a game this spring,” Ferentz said. “We want to identify guys as they cut it loose a little bit and see what they look like.”

Junior defensive back Jordan Lomax will get the same treatment as he moves to free safety this spring.

Lomax was a favorite to start at cornerback for Iowa in 2013 next to B.J. Lowery. But injuries kept Lomax off the field for much of the season, and by the time he was ready to come back freshman Desmond King had emerged as not only a starter but a star.

Lomax has been listed as a starter in place of the departed Tanner Miller, and the move to safety appears to be permanent.

Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper will compete to start at the vacant cornerback spot alongside King.

“He’s got some of the traits that you look for in safety,” Ferentz said about Lomax. “He’s a physical player, he’s very intelligent, he’s been an honor student since he’s been here, and communicative that way.”

Iowa brings nearly all its starters back on offense, which should offer a rare shot at continuity on that side of the ball.

But even though Jake Rudock is a clear starter at quarterback, the coaching staff seems intent on giving C.J. Beathard a fair shot at beating him out.

Rudock threw for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore. Beathard was just 9 of 27 passing in limited duty, but he also showed a live arm and impressive mobility.

“C.J. did a lot of good things last year, and I’d expect him to be a better player this spring than he was a year ago. We’ll let those guys compete,” Ferentz said. “They’re both competitive guys.”

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