Chiefs Relying on Healthy, Energized Anthony Hitchens for Linebacker Leadership

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Anthony Hitchens doesn't want to dwell on the 2018 season, but he quickly concedes the atmosphere feel different in Chiefs training camp this summer, working with a rejuvenated defense looking to build a reputation as a fast and frenetic unit.

“You see me now, I'm sweating, I lose about 10 pounds a day when we're in pads,” Hitchens said after Saturday's workout. “It's just more energy, more running, more plays, it's just different.”

Everything feels different at this year's camp, and that's fine by Hitchens. The 2018 season appeared a lost yea for Hitchens in some ways. He came to a new team with a new scheme, and almost immediately suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out off the field in training camp for nearly two weeks. Fellow linebacker Reggie Ragland arrived at camp last year with a knee issue, meaning the team's key inside duo got little work together during the preseason.

Hitchens played just part of one preseason game last year. He re-injured his hamstring in Week 9 against Cleveland, and looked like he might miss extended time. Yet he returned after missing just one game, and gritted his way through to the end of the season.

This year at camp, it's hard to miss the smile on Hitchens' face, and certainly feeling good again makes it easier to smile.

“I'm still rolling right now, taking care of my body,” Hitchens said. “So just knock on wood, stay healthy and keep running to the ball.”

Feeling comfortable in the defense also adds to his positive attitude. Hitchens put up numbers last year – his career-high 135 total tackles ranked fifth in the league. But the 3-4 defense of former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton never entirely felt comfortable.

Even though the arrival of new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo means a third different scheme in three seasons for Hitchens, there's a familiarity that makes him believe he can improve on last year's performance.

“My four years in college was a 4-3, four years in Dallas was a 4-3, and my one year last year last year was a 3-4,” Hitchens said. “I'm very comfortable with it. A lot of similar terminology, similar line stunts, back rotations, mans are three deep. So I'm familiar with it, and I'm trying to get better at it and just trying to have the best year yet.”

Hitchens also credits Spagnuolo for creating a frenzied environment on the defense that's hard to miss in St. Joseph.

“He has a lot of energy, and it just feeds off from his coaching staff all the way to the players,” Hitchens said. “We needed that.”

If the Chiefs are going to improve a defense that allowed 405.5 yards per game last year, good for next-to-last in the league, head coach Andy Reid said they need leadership from Hitchens.

“Hitch brings great energy every play, every day, and he's smart,” Reid said. “He leads the middle of that defense right there, that's what he does.”

The linebacker takes pride in being the quiet leader who makes sure everyone understands their role in the defense.

“Everyone leads in different ways,” Hitchens said. “I probably won't be the one that's out there yelling and jumping up and down and rah-rah-ing, but there are other ways to lead, and mine is more in the classroom, getting guys right and making sure we perform on Sunday.”

Spagnuolo doesn't know exactly what he has on the Chiefs' defense yet. While Hitchens is a mainstay on the No. 1 unit, the defensive coordinator is experimenting with different combinations and styles. The Chiefs project Hitchens as their starting weak side linebacker, the Will linebacker, but Spagnuolo prizes versatility.

“I'm not just learning the Mike position, the Will, the Buck, the Sam, I'm learning all of them,” Hitchens said. “You never know where you might end up in the season, so I'm learning them all, trying to embrace it the best way I can and try to feed all the info I get to my other teammates.”

So far, Spagnuolo likes what he sees.

“Anthony Hitchens is doing a great job,” Spagnuolo said. “Reggie (Ragland), Damien Wilson, all of those guys have been terrific, so I'm really impressed with that.”

Hitchens know the defense has a lot of work to do, especially with their Week 1 trip to Jacksonville just five weeks away. He says they can get it done.

“If we want to win, we've got to get it done,” he said. “There's other teams in the league that's going through the same thing. No one's going to feel sorry for us in Week 1, so we got to find a way to get it done and that's what we're trying to.”