Editor’s note: First in an eight-part series looking at the 2017 Iowa football team
AMES — Matt Campbell didn’t like what he saw.
With his Iowa State football team trailing West Virginia in the second half of the 2016 season finale, Campbell and his assistants were having simultaneous discussions. The disappointment wasn’t in the game itself. It was the lack of usage of a certain player.
Joel Lanning had been the man the week prior against Texas Tech, rattling off 171 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the Cyclones’ 56-point win. Against the Mountaineers, Lanning didn’t attempt a pass or record a carry.
The inconsistency in Lanning’s usage, Campbell said, had to end.
“I thought more of it,” Campbell said, “and almost kind of put myself in a (general manager) mentality of where do I see this guy?”
That’s when the idea of Lanning converting from quarterback to middle linebacker was born. A handful of conversations between Campbell and Lanning ultimately ended in him transitioning from quarterback to donning a white jersey in one of the most physical positions on defense.
“What he can do better than anybody else is laugh and smile, but then when the ball is snapped he hustles to the ball, he runs full speed, he does his drops, he does his reads,” said quarterback Jacob Park. “He tries to do everything at 100 percent every time.”
Even now, six months since switching to defense, the thought of how rare the feat is crosses Lanning’s mind. A guy who hasn’t played defense since he was an Ankeny eighth-grader is now being asked to have full command of the defense as a fifth-year senior.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do on defense or what it took to learn,” Lanning said. “It was just little things. The thing about defense is you can’t; like offense I was used to dictating the speed of the game.
“As a quarterback you’ve got to be prepared, but as a linebacker you’ve got to see everything.”
“He’s starting to trust what he sees now whereas before it was just ‘Oh my gosh,’” said defensive coordinator Jon Heacock. “Now I think it’s, ‘Hey there’s a seam. Go make a play.’
“Just some natural things you would think guys that have played that position for four years would do naturally. He’s starting to do some of those.”
At 6-foot-2, Lanning packed weight on his frame in the offseason in preparation for his move and is now 230 pounds. His quarterback style was typically more physical than his counterparts, and he completed 99-of-169 passes for 1,290 yards and nine touchdowns while running for 518 yards and 11 scores.
Lanning will be able to put his physical background — he was also an all-state wrestler in Iowa — to use on defense. His conditioning, Lanning said, felt “20 times better” this fall camp than he’s felt in the past, and for good reason. Iowa State plans on playing him every chance it can.
“He’s one of our best players so we’re going to rely on him to do a lot of different things for us,” said linebackers coach Tyson Veidt. “He’s certainly accepted that challenge. He’s physically ready to do it and we’ll get as much mileage out of him as we can, that’s for sure.”
Lanning’s move, although unorthodox, made sense for a number of reasons. Park established himself as the primary quarterback the final five games last season, and the Cyclones needed more depth at linebacker.
Redshirt freshman Tymar Sutton and sophomore Bobby McMillen are battling for the No. 2 middle linebacker spot after Lanning was slotted as the starter in spring practices. Sophomore Marcel Spears Jr. has risen up the depth chart on the outside and junior Willie Harvey is the established presence in the room with 78 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season.
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Just because Lanning has found a new home on defense doesn’t mean his role on offense is done. Campbell has been adamant since the switch that Lanning would continue to have a role, and has followed through with that promise in fall camp. He gets his practice plan in the meeting room and will take reps with offense and defense, often in the same practice.
In his final act at Iowa State, Lanning will attempt a feat rarely seen in college football and become the Cyclones’ jack-of-all-trades.
“It’s fun,” Lanning said. “It keeps you on your toes all the time, I’ll tell you that.”
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