FOOTBALL IS HAPPENING.
Teams across the country have opened camp, position battles are taking place, and optimism can be found everywhere. That includes our beloved Cyclones camping in Ames and trying to dig out of the 5-19 hole they earned the previous two seasons.
As we did last year, we'll tour you through all of the positions on the roster and rank them from worst to best. For better or worse, we'll start with a unit that requires no introductions.
This is your 2015 preview of Iowa State's linebackers.
The Depth Chart
|SLB/N (SAM)||12||Jarnor Jones||RJr||6'3"||209|
|MLB (MIKE)||2||Jordan Harris||RJr||6'0"||233|
|WLB (WILL)||35||**Levi Peters||RJr||5'11"||218|
We're 100 words in to our first preview of the season and we already have a problem: there is no leader of this group. Gone are the days of A.J. Klein and Jake Knott providing the quiet, lead by example leadership that made the 2012 defense the best in almost a decade. Even Jeremiah George's leadership kept the 2013 defense held together with band-aids and silly string. Two years later that void has yet to be filled and that must change for this unit.
From a pure leadership standpoint you have to give the nod to Levi Peters. He's vocal, he's a hard worker, and he might just play himself in to a significant contributor role on defense.
That's a problem.
With better recruiting and depth Peters would never see the field on defense. He'd be the special teamer that makes crazy hip tosses and double leg takedowns and endears himself to the fan base for years to come. Instead he's competing with another undersized linebacker and a linebacker with a bum hip.
None of this is a knock on Peters - he's a stand up guy and an emotional rallying point for a team that needs one - but it illustrates how much Jake Knott spoiled us at the weakside linebacker position. Walk-on to superstar stories are great, but when the team depends on that story for success then something has went terribly wrong.
The X Factor
It's easy to say Jordan Harris here but my money is on new SAM/Nickel Jay Jones. A former NC State cornerback, Jones went to Georgia Military College to get playing time and raise his playing profile. After seeing him in the spring he reminds me more of Ter'ran Benton and Deon Broomfield and less of Jared Brackens. He lacks Brackens' speed but I have little doubt he's going to play assignment football as well as Benton and Broomfield did when they were playing close to the line of scrimmage.
In the current state of the Big 12 having a strong Nickel can do wonders for a defense and Jones is the next Cyclone in line to stabilize the defense against the spread.
A Relevant Stat
From Bobby La Gesse's linebacker preview last week:
ISU linebackers combined for 16.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, zero interceptions, six pass deflections, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery last season.
Harris has at least an Honorable All Big XII mention at the end of the season; another linebacker accumulates close to, or over, 100 tackles, and the interceptions return.
Another +5 yards per carry season for the rush defense, no turnovers generated, and Harris consistently shows exactly why he needed the redshirt year.
The Final Verdict
In the next few days I'll write about the defensive line but will gush about the potential the starters have. The only real difference between what I'll do then and what I'm doing now is the ceiling. This linebacker group isn't going to churn out All Big XII performers left and right like Burnham was doing half a decade ago, but if they can at least limit big plays and create a few turnovers it will take the stress off back four to be the only playmakers on defense.
Jordan Harris strikes me as a player who is going to either boom or bust with absolutely no middle ground. We'll find out very quickly against UNI whether or not he's more like Jeremiah George or Jevohn Miller. The plus to all of this is once Miller finally moved to MIKE his instincts were highlighted and the defense marginally improved.
However, marginal will not work for the defense this season. Not with the questionable depth and lack of size at the linebacker position. If Harris can lead this group back to average then the rest of the defense will follow. If not, then everyone is learning a new system in 2016.