Back in August, I previewed the 2019 linebacker core for Iowa State and I predicted that they would be the best linebacker core in the Big 12. Even though they didn’t live up to that standard, they were still very good, but did regress from 2018.
Losing Willie Harvey Jr. from last year’s squad took a big hit on the team, but overall I think most players just didn’t play as well as we are used to seeing them play. A lot of this can be attributed to the overall scheme of Iowa State’s defense not being as effective as normal, and the lack of production up front from the defensive line.
Nonetheless, much like the defense as a whole, the linebackers had a good, not great, season. Some individuals broke out this season, while some took a step back.
Just before the season, Matt Campbell and Jon Heacock surprised us by announcing the depth chart that showed O’Rien Vance was the starting linebacker with Mike Rose sliding outside with Marcel Spears. It was a move that was questionable, but it’s clear that it was worth getting Vance in a starting spot, as he was incredible this season.
Vance and Iowa State kicked off the season with a terrible game against UNI that they won in OT, but we don’t talk about that. Pretty much everything about that game was forgettable except Vance’s coming out party where he recorded 7.0 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, and 2.0 sacks. This kickstarted what was a breakout season for for Vance, leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss with 6.5 and 9.0, respectively. He also finished fifth on the team in tackles with 66 while playing in 12 games.
Rose, the breakout star from last season, was bumped out to strong side linebacker which made him fly under the radar a little more than usual. Rose ranked third on the team in tackles with 77, second on the team in tackles for loss with 9.0, and increased his sack total to 3.5. Rose didn’t have a sophomore slump by any means, but in terms of his pass rushing and run stopping, he didn’t take nearly as big of a jump as I expected. Mike played a much larger role in pass coverage than in 2018, but it provided a huge point of growth for him. He defended four passes and had an interception, which was an increase from his freshman season. Overall, we saw Rose do a lot in his sophomore campaign, but I don’t think he was used to his strengths enough.
Marcel Spears played his final season as a Cyclone and led the team in tackles with 92 from the weak side position. He also tacked on 8.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and 7 pass break ups from the linebacker spot. In case you didn’t know, 7 passes defended is an elite number from the linebacker position. In the passing game along with the running game, we got pretty much exactly what you would expect from Spears: consistency. Spears recorded at least five tackles in 12 of the 13 games he started in. The only knock on Spears is the sad reality that he didn’t get another perfectly-timed interception/pick-six against Texas Tech that had become his signature at Iowa State. Nonetheless, Spears was an incredible linebacker and leader that helped turn the Cyclone program around in his time with Iowa State.
Jake Hummel and Bobby McMillen both filled in and played solid roles on the team when given the chance. Hummel had 36 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, which was a big jump for the junior from Dowling. McMillen had 22 tackles in the platoon role.
Will McDonald started out the season as an outside linebacker, but as he began to grow more comfortable in the defense, he got more snaps at defensive end, a place where he began to dominate. Our intern, Dylan Coon went a little more in depth with his defensive line recap.
Overall, it was a very good year for the linebackers. The talent is there, the execution was mostly there, and the depth was also very solid. However, we didn’t see the linebackers dominate like we are used to due to the lack of dominate defensive line play. Because of Ray Lima’s regression, the linebackers didn’t have a huge advantage once the ball was snapped like we are used to.
Iowa State returns everyone from this position except Marcel Spears and Bobby McMillen. These departures will be a lot like Willie Harvey Jr.’s departure a year ago: tough, but manageable. Hummel showed the ability to be an every down player, so expect him to start next season alongside Rose and Vance. The duo of Vance and Rose will automatically move Iowa State towards the top of the Big 12 in linebacker talent, which is promising for next season.
Some names to also expect to hear a lot next season are Chandler Pulvermacher, Aric Horne, and Gerry Vaughn. These are all players who got a lot of special teams reps as freshmen or redshirt freshmen, and should all provide valuable depth.
Saying this group underachieved this season would be unfair, but it’s safe to say that they didn’t live up to their full potential. Expect this group to have a chip on their shoulder all off-season and come into 2020 trying to prove something.