Over the final few days of the offseason, we at WRNL are breaking down every position group from the quarterbacks down to the special teams. I’ll be looking over what the linebacking corps has lost and gained since last season, where they stand headed into the season, and what my expectations are for the unit this year.
The linebackers are coached by Tyson Veidt and now Joel Lanning. CycloneFanatic.com had a video of an interview with Veidt from a couple weeks back where he talks about the upcoming season. Obviously, everyone reading this article is familiar with Joel Lanning, the former Cyclone star that switched from quarterback to linebacker, and was damn good at it. Having Lanning there is really good for the players, because he is a guy that was in their shoes just two seasons ago, and it’s Joel Freaking Lanning.
The linebackers are a position that have been a huge strength for the Iowa State defense since the Paul Rhoads era, but now it is potentially Iowa State’s biggest strength. Since Matt Campbell arrived in Ames, the unit has taken huge strides. Last season, ISU had seven guys who could step in and make plays without any noticeable drop off. Expect the same this season.
The biggest loss for the linebackers, and arguably the biggest loss on the defense, is Willie Harvey, nearly a four year starter. Harvey started 41 games over the course of his career, and his 76 tackles were good for second-best on the team to Greg Eisworth’s 87. That’s a lot of tackles to replace.
In Harvey’s final game, the Alamo Bowl, he was ejected on a targeting call and replaced by another senior, Reggan Northrup. Northrup was a starter earlier in his career, but was moved to more of a reserve role for the past two seasons. He was very solid whenever he came in and is a player that the defense will miss for depth.
Those are the only two losses from last season’s linebacking corps, but the loss of Harvey will be very noticeable. Harvey was a competitor, leader, ball hawk, and ferocious defender who was always a fan favorite. The good news is that Harvey left the Iowa State football team and defense in a much better place than he found it. He left an impact on the returning players and they will be much better because of him.
To diehard fans, McDonald isn’t new, and he **technically** isn’t a newcomer because he played in four games as a freshman to maintain the redshirt. In his redshirt games, McDonald saw a lot of snaps at defensive end and a few at outside linebacker. While switching time between these two positions, he recorded three tackles and one tackle for loss.
On Iowa State’s first depth chart of the season, McDonald was listed as the starting strong-side linebacker, which gives him flexibility within the scheme to either drop back into coverage or come off the edge as a pass rusher. His impressive size at 6’4” and 230 lbs should allow him to excel in both roles.
Pulvermacher is another redshirt freshman, but, unlike McDonald, Pulvermacher didn’t see the field as much last season outside of some special teams in the Alamo Bowl. He’s currently listed as the backup to McDonald and will be relied on a lot for depth purposes as the season goes along. Pulvermacher is also a big guy, he’s listed at 6’2 and 220 lb while supposedly having some serious wheels.
This guy is a true freshman who will more than likely see some time on special teams, if not a little bit of time on the defense. He’s a smaller and quicker guy that will thrive on the weak side later on in his career. I wrote a scouting report on him a couple weeks ago with some more breakdown of his game.
Another true freshman who will more than likely see some playing time on special teams. I plan on having a scouting report out on him in the next couple of weeks.
Leader(s) of the Pack
This section is supposed to be “Leader of the Pack,” but I don’t think it would be fair for me to choose between Mike Rose and Marcel Spears Jr. Both of these guys are two of the biggest pieces on the entire defense, and they both dominate the game in their own respective ways.
Marcel Spears Jr.
We’ll start with the veteran. Spears stepped into the starting weak side position as a sophomore and hasn’t looked back since. Spears is built a little smaller than most linebackers; he stands at 6’1 and 218 lbs which helps him move faster than average. It doesn’t hold him back on the field though, as he often uses brute physicality to blow past defenders and chase down runners in the backfield. Perhaps the most important part of Spears’ game is his pass coverage. Throughout the last two seasons, Spears has been one of the best cover linebackers in the Big 12 thanks to phenomenal anticipation and quickness.
All of this combined for a great statistical year in 2018 that led to an All Big 12 honorable mention. Spears was fifth on the team in tackles with 69 while recording 8 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Marcel’s talent in the backfield is what helped him gain his 2019 preseason recognition, but his coverage skills are the real prize in his game, especially his two interceptions last season, one of which was a game changing pick six against Texas Tech that earned him Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors.
According to linebackers coach Tyson Veidt, Marcel has been in the film room a ton to help slow the game down even more. His anticipation and instincts are already a huge part of his game, so if he can improve on them even more, we will see an increase in production.
Mike Rose came out of almost nowhere to become on of the most dependable linebackers in the conference in 2018. In fact, when I wrote last year’s Linebackers preview, I listed him as “Michael Rose.” I didn’t know anything about him before he shone in the season “opener” against Iowa.
Rose had the job of replacing one of the most beloved players in school history, Joel Lanning, and somehow managed to fill that void, and even provide a net boon to the position. His work as the middle linebacker and spy for quarterbacks like Kyler Murray and Sam Ehlinger earned him Preseason All-Big 12 honors, and should provide a sturdy foundation on which to build his 2019 season.
When you watch games and film, Rose is legitimately in on every play. He is always the first linebacker through the line on the blitz, and he’s always the type of player to end up making a tackle on the sideline when he shouldn’t. This type of hustle and effort mixed with pure football instincts makes him one helluva linebacker.
Rose finished his freshman season third on the team in tackles with 75, nine of which were in the backfield for a loss while also recording 1.5 sacks. He also had a fumble recovery/interception for a touchdown in the Kansas State game, which was one of the biggest touchdowns in school history.
Rose will be in a more important role than he was last year, and will be looked upon as the “quarterback of the defense,” while leading the 3-3-5 scheme. I have a feeling that Jon Heacock will be a little more blitz heavy this year which would mean even more opportunities for Rose in the backfield.
Mike Rose is going to mess up some quarterbacks this season and I can’t freaking wait.
One player who is used as a sub, but still plays enough to be an important player is O’Rien Vance. He backs up Mike Rose as the middle linebacker position and provides a more than serviceable understudy in the middle of the defense. In most cases, the drop-off from Rose to Vance was basically negligible, and his versatility to sit in coverage or rush the passer allows him to find the field at any of the linebacker spots.
Vance appeared in 11 games last season and recorded 24 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and 1.5 sacks. The redshirt sophomore impressed a lot when he was on the field during his first season and will only get better in his second season.
Hummel is in almost the exact same position as Vance, in that he isn’t a starter or an every down player, but he still makes a huge impact as a role player. Hummel is currently listed as the second-string weak-side linebacker behind Marcel Spears Jr.
Hummel, a junior, appeared in 13 games last season and recorded 31 tackles, 3 of those for loss, and 1 sack. Expect is statistical impact to increase as he gains more and more snaps as the defense prepares for the transition from Spears after the 2019 season.
I expect this unit to be the best in the Big 12, and one of the best in the country, just like last year. Mike Rose and Marcel Spears Jr. are two of the best defensive players in the Big 12, Will McDonald and Chandler Pulvermacher are two rising stars on the defense, and O’Rien Vance and Jake Hummel are both players who would start on any other Big 12 team.
The star power combined with depth makes this group absolutely terrifying. If Jon Heacock calls things anything like last year, I would expect a lot of pressure and blitzes from the second level of the front seven. This means a lot of Mike Rose, Marcel Spears, and co. shooting gaps and making life hell for opposing quarterbacks.
What makes this group so dangerous is the fact that the defensive line is even more intimidating than the linebackers. Ray Lima, Jaquan Bailey, Enyi Ewazurike, and Jamahl Johnson are all so good that the offensive line often has to send double or triple teams at these guys, leaving some of the linebackers untouched.
On the flip side, some of the other linebackers can sit back in coverage to prevent passes in the flats, a role often occupied by Willie Harvey last season. Iowa State’s defense isn’t necessarily schemed to prevent the passes to the flats, but having the kind athleticism in the linebacker group that Iowa State does could allow Heacock to be more aggressive this season.
This Iowa State defense has a chance to be really special this season, and the linebackers will be a huge part of that. They have all of the pieces to dominate every week. From the veteran Marcel Spears Jr. to the unproven Chandler Pulvermacher, everyone is going to play their part to make this one of the best position groups in the Big 12.