The linebacker room lost just two names this past offseason, but both were significant contributors. Bobby McMillen wasn’t technically a starter, but he did play significant snaps in 2019 as both a spell linebacker and on special teams. Last season, he recorded 22 tackles and a pass breakup in his reserve role, and even recorded his first start against Texas Tech.
However, the more significant loss of the two is without a doubt Marcel Spears Jr. The Olathe, KS native developed into an extremely solid linebacker over his final three seasons in Ames, and developed a flair for the dramatic, as he registered pick sixes against Texas Tech in both 2017 and 2018, and also made the game-sealing interception in the 2017 upset of TCU.
Over his final three years, Marcel started all 39 games, and recorded 156 tackles, 24.5 TFL, 6 sacks, and four interceptions. Replacing his production and presence on the defense will be a top priority for Tyson Veidt and Jon Heacock.
The 2020 linebackers group is very young, but talented, with six true freshmen and four redshirt freshmen all vying for a spot on the depth chart. Let’s start with the true freshmen.
One of the true gems of the 2020 recruiting class may be Leon, IA native Cole Pedersen. He’s an impressive athlete with a great instinct for the ball, and I would not be surprised at all to see him earn playing time this fall, especially since this season doesn’t count towards anyone’s eligibility, and thus wouldn’t be risking burning a redshirt.
Ar’Quel Smith and Hunter Zenzen are the other two scholarship linebackers from the 2020 class, but I would be surprised if either of them got significant playing time this season outside of garbage time later in the season if Iowa State is no longer vying for a spot in the Big 12 title game at that point.
The remaining three, Kade Lynott, Jack Tiarks, and Stevo Klotz are all walk-ons.
However, the redshirt freshman group has a couple names that you may want to remember for 2020. Aric Horne and Dae’Shawn Davis could both be pushing for significant playing time as a backup this coming season. If the name Dae’Shawn Davis doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because he spent last season at Iowa Western CC while waiting for a scholarship to open up here. However, he’s gotten some buzz in camp so far, and could be pushing for a spot on the depth chart.
Leader of the Pack
The top end of the linebackers is very talented, but none are more important to the group than Mike Rose. Since starting the very first game of his true freshman season, Rose has been an extremely consistent player in Jon Heacock’s defense. However, last season Rose moved from middle to outside linebacker, which proved to not be as natural of a fit for him, and his production waned just a bit from 2018, even if his stats were largely identical.
I don’t know if the staff is considering moving him back to his more natural position of middle linebacker this season, but I would guess he’ll stay outside as long as O’Rien Vance continues to be solid in the middle. Assuming he does stay outside, I would still expect improvement and more solid run fits and pursuit angles from Rose in his second full season at outside linebacker.
Don’t Forget About
O’Rien Vance got off to a hot start last season, recording 6.5 sacks through the first four games, but a concussion he suffered against West Virginia (which caused him to miss the Texas Tech game), seemed to flatten out the trajectory on his season. He was still solid after returning for the Oklahoma State game, but wasn’t as effective for the rest of the season. If he can return to his pre-concussion form, then Iowa State should have a very dynamic linebacker group this season. If not, then we could potentially see Mike Rose move back to the middle to solidify the interior of the defense.
The other person to keep an eye on is Jake Hummel. After playing well over the past couple seasons in a reserve role, he looks prime to take a significant leap forward as he slides into a starting role following the departure of Marcel Spears.
Overall, I expect this group to at least maintain status quo as long as we don’t see any significant injuries. I expect O’Rien Vance to return to his pre-concussion form and become a dynamic pass rusher from the interior of the defense, while Mike Rose and Jake Hummel maintain solid run fits on the outside edge and get to the quarterback when their name is called.
If we do see a rash of injuries (or illness), then this group becomes a bit of a wild card, as the personnel behind the starters is extremely young and has virtually no prior playing time. That said, Iowa State has largely been blessed by solid linebacker play in the Matt Campbell era, and this season should be no different.