Anthony Hitchens is one of the best athletes in Clearview High School history. He was a Golden Helmet winner, a three-sport star and drew interest from multiple Division I colleges.
But when he left for Iowa City to play for the Hawkeyes, the NFL was light-years — and 40 pounds — away.
It’s suddenly around the corner.
Hitchens was at the scouting combine in Indianapolis as the ramp-up to the draft May 8-10 began. The linebacker sat at a table inside Lucas Oil Stadium, answered questions from the Big Ten Network and then discussed the road he traveled to arrive on the doorstep of the NFL.
It began in Lorain.
“I was always confident, but I just didn’t think I would ever get the size,” he told The Chronicle-Telegram. “I was only 200 pounds coming out of high school, so I was just like, there’s no way I’m going to get up to 240 or where I need to be. Then as the years got on, I just got more confident putting on more weight and now I’m there at 240.”
Hitchens measured 6-foot and 240 pounds at the combine, which is a bit below average but big enough for the NFL. How did he add 40 pounds?
“Eating better, getting my rest, competing hard in the weight room,” he said. “I was fortunate enough I went to Iowa where the weight room, there’s no greater priority there. Just fortunate enough to go to Iowa.”
The Hawkeyes were glad to have him.
He had 260 career tackles, had at least 10 tackles in 12 games his last two years and led the Big Ten and ranked fifth in the nation with 11.2 per game in 2012. He was voted second-team All-Big Ten by the coaches and honorable mention by the media.
“He has great leverage and pretty good explosion,” Hawkeyes defensive coordinator Phil Parker, a graduate of Amherst High School, said in a phone interview. “He has powerful striking ability and leverage. He can really bend.
“He’ll be one of those guys that goes into somebody’s organization, gives everything he has and spends time in the film room working to be the best player he can be.”
Hitchens is projected as a late-round draft pick or priority free agent.
“I just want to get picked up,” he said. “I don’t care what round it is. If it’s getting signed as a free agent, just when camp comes I want to be in camp.”
Hitchens ran a 4.74-second 40-yard dash at the combine, but improved to 4.6 at his pro day, which is his normal time, according to Iowa assistant coach Jim Reid. He bench pressed 225 pounds 23 times and had a 31.5-inch vertical jump.
NFLdraftscout.com’s Rob Rang’s scouting report on Hitchens says he has an explosive first step, good balance and agility. He added he’s highly physical, a fundamental tackler and effective blitzer.
“Just tough and get to the ball,” Hitchens said. “I’m hungry for what I do and I’m a humble guy.”
Reid, who works with the linebackers, has no doubt Hitchens will make it in the NFL.
“This guy can run, he can hit, he can learn, he can change direction,” Reid said. “That means he can play.
“He’s really a fluid player. He has change of direction in the short area, which is always a skill that people use, is really outstanding.”
“He earned the right to have the chance to play at that level,” Parker said. “It will have to be the right fit. He’ll give himself the chance just because of the desire he has, he’ll put the time into it he needs to.”
Hitchens played mostly inside linebacker for the Hawkeyes and expects to play inside in the NFL. He said he can fit in 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.
“Any type of defense where they want the guy to be able to run, come inside out on the ball, attack upfield, he would be great,” Reid said.
Unlike most players at Iowa, Hitchens didn’t redshirt and played as a freshman on special teams. Parker said that was a primary reason Hitchens was still learning as a senior. Hitchens used his greater awareness and anticipation to register 13 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
“From junior year to senior year he was one of the guys that made the biggest improvement on defense,” Parker said. “He added a little playmaking ability. He was a little more in tune, made some big plays for us this year. I think he can do the same at the next level. His football IQ really went up from junior to senior.”
A couple of examples illustrated the point for Reid.
Late in a win over Michigan, Hitchens recognized the wide split that signaled a run and turned second-and-1 into third-and-3.
“He knew the play and made a huge play,” Reid said.
“I think that was my jump, making tackles at the line of scrimmage, behind the line of scrimmage, and I just thought it was all with watching film and me growing up,” Hitchens said.
He impressed his coaches by knowing the situation, observing the offense and calling out screens before they came.
“His ability to learn is absolutely paramount at that next level,” said Reid, who spent two years coaching with the Miami Dolphins. “So many guys just play. What they have to do is know and anticipate what play is coming. He has that great skill. He really developed last year.
“This guy is tough, tough mentally as well.”
Reid brought up toughness often when discussing Hitchens, and even used it as a way to compliment his personality.
“It’s always great to be tough, violent on the field, then transition to a great gentleman off the field,” Reid said. “He’s extremely helpful. He’s the kind of guy that’s gonna stop to help my wife fix a flat tire on the freeway.
“If you’re looking for a role model, we’re talking about one right there. He’s a man’s man.”
Hitchens is scheduled to get his degree in sports management in May. When he’s done with football, he’d like to manage a YMCA or do something with sports that keeps kids involved.
He said the NFL started to seem like a real possibility when he began to receive a lot of attention as a junior. It only increased his incentive to work.
“A lot of kids would die for this situation and I get texts from some of my friends at home, ‘You’re living the dream,’ and stuff like that,” he said. “I’m definitely soaking it all in and I’m just trying to make the most of the opportunity.
“It’s been fun, it’s been a good ride. I don’t regret one bit of it and I’m going to make the most of it.”
His family is overjoyed and lets him know.
“They’re excited. Maybe a little too excited,” he said. “They’re my parents and that’s what they’re for. They have all the faith in the world in me. It’s definitely a lot easier when you have family behind you. It’s all love and I definitely appreciate it and I wouldn’t be here without them.”