The Iowa State football team lost what was assumed to be a key piece of their 2016 defense when it was announced that senior linebacker Jordan Harris would become a graduate transfer, deciding to spend his final season closer to home in Mississippi.
Losing a player who started all 12 games the previous season is rarely ever a positive, regardless of the reason. It is, in my humble opinion, a natural reaction for fans to feel angry/disappointed over the lost of any kind of transfer as well. In the case of Jordan Harris, however, I feel that the why plays a big role in his decision to transfer, and might also help to sort out what his loss means for this football team.
Why would a senior linebacker decide to transfer now?
Here's my #analysis:
Harris was lightly recruited as a JUCO player, despite being named a NJCAA Second-Team All-American at Copiah-Lincoln CC and leading the junior college ranks in tackles. He ended up choosing ISU over Memphis, Tulane, and Southern Mississippi.
Once he arrived on campus, fans and coaches alike hoped that Harris would be ready to step in and take over the middle linebacker position. This was not the case, however, as he was redshirted in his first season on campus. The decision to redshirt a JUCO All-American, which is probably not very normal, was made due to Harris's struggles adjusting to D-1 football, as well as difficulties grasping Burhnam's defensive playbook.
During his year off, Harris made strides on the mental aspects of his game, and came into the 2015 season ready to make an impact on the field. And by all accounts, that's exactly what he did.
Harris would finish the season ranking 3rd on the team in tackles (70) and fifth in tackles for loss (5), in addition to starting all 12 games. He also became one of the leaders on the defensive side of the ball as well, something desperately needed on last year's defense.
So... Why the transfer? To me, it could come down to a few different reasons (in no particular order).
- The coaching change. A change in leadership is never a completely smooth transition for a football program. This has been evident with Campbell and Co.'s takeover, as we have already seen many players depart for a plethora of reasons. Jordan Harris was a Rhoads/Burnham recruit, and it's possible that something just didn't click with the new staff.
- Harris's "role changing". To me, a player's role changing is a coach speak phrase for moving down on the depth chart/seeing less snaps. I feel that this may be the case with Harris. Though he did have a pretty effective junior campaign, it should be noted that it took him an entire year of learning Wally Burhnam's system to reach that level of play. Campbell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock are set to debut a new 4-2-5 scheme this fall, meaning an entirely new playbook to learn. Using only 2 linebackers on most downs means that Harris's role theoretically may have actually changed as well. In addition, several younger players have been noted as taking big steps forward this spring and summer (more on that later).
- Take Harris at his word. Though he was a valuable linebacker, and likely would have once again been a leader on the defensive side of the ball, Campbell noted that he had expressed the desire to play his final season closer to home. Coach Campbell was even quoted as saying: "Jordan has done everything we have asked him to do since the first day I got here. He's a great person and a great teammate. In our meetings recently, Jordan expressed interest in finishing out his career closer to his family. I have the utmost respect for Jordan and we will fully support him in his decision." Can you blame a player who wanted to spend his last collegiate season closer to home? I can't...
What does his loss mean for the defense going forward?
This is where examining the depth chart begins to become as enjoyable as watching Big 10 basketball.
Losing an every-down linebacker like Harris is undoubtedly a sizable loss. Even if Harris had seen his role changed or even diminished, losing him still creates a negative impact on a very important position with little depth.
The most notable returning linebacker, with "notable" probably serving as an insult to this talented young man, is sophomore Willie Harvey. Harvey, who finished 4th on the team in tackles (59) as a redshirt freshman and started 8 games in the process, is thought by many to have the potential to become the next great Iowa State linebacker.
Another player who has shown much improvement is Perry, Iowa native Kane Seeley. The senior played in all 12 games last year, starting once. While it has taken him a while to make an impact on the field, Seeley seems poised to take on a more significant role this fall.
Reggan Northrup is another guy fighting for playing time at the linebacker position. Northrup was redshirted in 2014, and ended up being the Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year. He played primarily at the nickel position in 2015, playing in all 12 games and recording 32 tackles (2.5 for loss), one sack, and one forced fumble. With Campbell looking for more speed on the field to combat the air-raid type offenses rampant in the Big 12, expect to see Northrup on the field quite often this fall.
Brian Mills and Josh Jahlas are two other players likely to see time at the linebacker position this fall. Mills is a redshirt junior who played in 9 games and recorded 41 tackles. Jahlas (who we interviewed last week) primarily played on special teams in 2015, but could see time at linebacker.
In summary, while there are still other options at the linebacker position for the Cyclones, it's unquestionably tough to lose a player like Jordan Harris less than 3 months away from the season opener. Moving forward, the focus (and the spotlight) will be on the players mentioned above to step up and fill the void left by Harris's departure.
Will the coaching staff be able to mold the second-unit type players into solid Big 12 linebackers? Let's see what Campbell and Company can do this summer and fall.