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Defensive Player to Watch: O’Rien Vance

Vance has been a welcome surprise this season.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

When I saw O’Rien Vance listed as the starting middle linebacker over Mike Rose, I was surprised. Mike Rose is a great pass rusher and is pretty good in coverage, so it was baffling that he got knocked outside after such a great freshman season.

O’Rien Vance is proving why.

Vance is a 6’1, 231 pound redshirt-sophomore who played in 11 of Iowa State’s 13 games last year. He made an impact and was a serviceable backup as a freshman, but few people predicted a break out season like he’s had so far. Vance is currently leading the Big 12 in sacks with 6.5 and is ranked fifth in the country. For reference, Jaquan Bailey led Iowa State in sacks last season with 8.0.

Vance is also manning the middle and leading the linebacking core in tackles with 34, placing him fourth on the team.

It’s no doubt that Vance is the best pass rusher that Iowa State has from the linebacker position. Nearly every time he’s sent on a blitz, he makes an impact on the play, whether it’s creating havoc in the pocket or bringing the quarterback down himself.

West Virginia struggles to run the ball, as they are averaging just 3.4 yards per rush this season, so the Cyclones may be able to shift some focus off stopping the run game and focus on defending the deep passing game. However, to aid in that pursuit, Iowa State will still need to apply pressure on the quarterback via a few different blitz packages.

In 2018, Jon Heacock sent blitzers from every which way, including from the safeties, to confuse Will Grier and force him to make mistakes, which worked beautifully.

Schematically, West Virginia isn’t significantly different from the Dana Holgerson era, but the Mountaineers lost a lot of talent, including Grier, and have struggled to move the ball at times this season. I expect a similar game plan from last year for the Cyclones on Saturday. A lot of pressure, a lot of hurries, and relying on the defensive backs to make plays on their own.

If all goes well, that plan should work. But the theme this year has been execution (or lack there of). The game plan can be really good, but it doesn’t mean anything without players making plays.

O’Rien Vance is the player that makes those plays, I expect him to do the same on Saturday. Look for a lot of pressure right off of the bat for Vance, as Heacock and company will be looking to set the tone early.

Even if Vance isn’t recording sacks or quarterback hurries, that doesn’t mean that he won’t cause havoc. Vance’s job on Saturday will blowing up plays and taking double teams, which allows for safety and corner blitzes to be effective.

If O’Rien Vance plays like he has all season, the Iowa State defense should have no problem taking care of West Virginia.