After a long run of good linebacker groups headlined by Tim Dobbins, Alvin Bowen, Jesse Smith, A.J. Klein, Jake Knott, and Jeremiah George (all of which played in the NFL), Iowa State had struggled at linebacker for a few seasons. Even in 2016, the linebackers were arguably the weakest part of the defense. Going into the 2017 season, we knew the group’s talent overall level was better than it had been for the past half decade, but questions still loomed.
Who was going to play middle linebacker?
Joel F****** Lanning. That’s who.
In January, Matt Campbell sat Joel down in his office and asked him to make an enormous sacrifice. The lifelong quarterback was being asked to switch to middle linebacker. Players switching from offense to defense or vice versa is uncommon, but not completely unheard of. However, switching sides of the ball usually happens with receivers and defensive backs, or lineman. Quarterbacks will even occasionally switch to running back or receiver, but never to defense.
Instead of transferring to a smaller school to continue playing quarterback, Joel gave up the only position he’d played for most of a decade to attempt to learn how to play the defense’s most intellectually demanding position in just one offseason. The 230 lb senior certainly had the body and the brains to play the position, but it became a matter of whether or not he can learn the position quickly enough.
As you might have heard, it went alright.
Position MVP: Joel Lanning
This was a no-brainer. Even discounting his journey to playing middle linebacker, he was the position group’s MVP and was an All-Big 12 linebacker. However, his journey and two-way play landed him on multiple All-American teams, including FWAA’s First Team All-America. He also was a finalist for the Hornung Award for the nation’s most versatile player, but was robbed by a committee that believed Saquon Barkley’s ability to both run and catch a football made him more versatile then a quarterback-turned-linebacker that was a true three way player.
Joel’s story has been covered in depth by nearly every major news outlet in the country, including his own feature on ESPN’s College GameDay, so I won’t go further into his story. Regardless, his impact on this program both on and off the field can’t possibly be understated.
Highlight of the Season
This came to two plays, both by Marcel Spears Jr. The first is his game-sealing win in the upset of #4 TCU, and the second is his pick-6 against Texas Tech. Joel Lanning’s chasedown sack of Baker Mayfield is an honorable mention.
Marcel Spears Jr. burst onto the season this year as a sophomore, making the two huge, game winning plays shown above, as well being excellent in pass coverage. PFF gave him an 86.5 for an overall grade, as well as his grade in coverage, god 39th-best in the country. Going into his junior season, he won’t play the middle linebacker spot, but he’ll be the best and most important returning linebacker.
Honorable mention for breakout player goes to senior-to-be Willie Harvey, whom PFF graded out at 82.8. Harvey, a Rhoads recruit, has had consistent playing time for each of the last few seasons following his redshirt. He’s best in pass coverage, but still registered a 76.0 in run defense. Harvey was primarily responsible for the strip sack in the TCU game, as well as a pick-6 against UNI.
Outlook for 2018
The coaching staff seems to be pretty excited about the linebacker position battles going into next season. O’Rien Vance, Jake Hummel, and Tymar Sutton appear to be the front runners to claim most of the snaps at linebacker for next season, with Hummel and Sutton having some game experience. Vance in particular is a really interesting prospect as a redshirt freshman, and the 6’3” 235 lb Cedar Rapids native has the body to be a force in the middle. For my money, if he has a good spring and fall training camp, he’s probably the starter alongside Spears and Harvey.