Brett Veach took over as Kansas City Chiefs general manager on July 10, 2017.
And on that day, Veach said his first call as GM was to the Dallas Cowboys about trading for inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens. The Cowboys were unwilling to trade Hitchens at the time, so Veach and the Chiefs would have to hold until he became an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
On March 15, 2018, that finally happened—and waiting for Hitchens in Kansas City was a position coach champing at the bit to get started.
“I was really excited—I’ve followed Anthony for a long time,” Chiefs inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. “I think Hitchens is a really, really high-football IQ guy. I think he gets it. I think he’s guy who studies pass concepts, who studies the run game. He’s constantly studying things, which gives him a chance to make plays.
“He’s just a super pro who prepares every single day and that’s great for our young guys, because Hitch came from a place in Dallas where Sean Lee’s the ultimate professional, right? So he was able to learn from Sean Lee and kind of figure some of that stuff out from him—how to be a pro, how to go to work every day, how to take care of your body. And Hitch does that. He’s the consummate professional.”
DeLeone began his coaching career at the University of Iowa, where he was a defensive student assistant for the Hawkeyes from 2007-08. DeLeone left for the University of New Hampshire in 2009 but still maintained his contacts at Iowa, where Hitchens would begin his college football playing career in 2010.
The mutual connections between the two are thus abundant.
“It’s funny you [bring that up], because [on Sunday] we had a deep conversation about college, Iowa and a couple players,” Hitchens said.
As Hitchens figured out in the discussion, DeLeone had mentored many of the Iowa teammates Hitchens looked up to as an underclassman.
“So, you guys got your respect and got your qualities from Mark, which is my coach now,” Hitchens said. “ It makes it a lot easier knowing that we’re from the same system so we can relate—like this is how we did it at Iowa, just play the same coverage here (in Kansas City). It helped me out a little bit and made me grow a little quicker.”
Hitchens’ comfort with his position coach comes at a critical time for both he and the Chiefs. One of the Chiefs’ biggest weaknesses last season was stopping the opposing run game, and Hitchens was signed as a complement to Reggie Ragland, so the “dynamic duo,” as dubbed by Veach, could do just that.
DeLeone refers to Hitchens and Ragland as “natural born leaders.”
“Those guys really mesh well on and off the field,” DeLeone said. “I think they both do a great job together and they have really good chemistry and at OTAs that was evident on the field ... They are both kind of getting back into here. There is a little bit of rust, but I think you saw the chemistry in nine-on-seven was pretty good. They are both really good, physical players and have great chemistry together.”
This offseason, the Chiefs waved goodbye to their single linebackers coach in Gary Gibbs, promoting DeLeone to inside linebackers coach and Mike Smith to outside linebackers coach.
“I think the way we are doing it now, you just kind of from a meeting standpoint, it is just the efficiency of what we are getting accomplished,” DeLeone said. “From a meeting standpoint, they are different positions. They are different techniques and they are different positions from a play-to-play basis. So now you are talking to everybody in the room. When I’m making a coaching point, it’s going to everybody in the room.”
Hitchens, who describes DeLeone as an “Iowa boy,” is receptive.
“He’s a good guy, a good coach,” Hitchens said of DeLeone. “Mark is always an excited guy. He loves energy. He brings energy. We feed off that, and he can’t be the only one bringing energy the other day, but some days, some guy sparks it and everybody else just feeds off that.
“He’s one of those guys who brings energy every single day and I’m just looking forward to being coached by him this year.”