AMES — Position changes usually aren’t too drastic.
Lots of times it’s a quarterback moving to wide receiver or a defensive end playing defensive tackle. Typically, you don’t make night-and-day alterations with players, especially when they’re a fifth-year senior.
What the Iowa State football team is doing with Joel Lanning is not very common.
“I can’t think of a time a quarterback came over to play middle linebacker,” said linebackers coach Tyson Veidt. “This is certainly a first.”
Lanning transitioned from quarterback to linebacker in the offseason, with the intention to use him in special situations with the offense this fall. But it was his raw, athletic potential that helped him rise through the ranks at linebacker quickly this spring.
As of now, the 6-foot-2 and 225-pound Lanning is listed as the starting middle linebacker and “it’s certainly his job right now to lose,” Veidt said. In the season opener against Northern Iowa on Sept. 2, don’t be surprised if Lanning trots out as a starter on defense.
“It would not shock me (if he started),” Veidt said. “I don’t think it would shock any of the coaches on the defensive side, huh uh. Just because he’s not making many mistakes. Naturally he’s still learning and he is making mistakes, but he learns from mistakes, so he’s not making the same one over and over again.”
Lanning hasn’t played linebacker in a game since eighth grade. He was an all-state quarterback at Ankeny High School and has thrown 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions with a 56.9 percent completion rate in his last 22 games.
But he has another side.
Iowa State Coach Matt Campbell thinks Lanning has the look of an NFL linebacker from a physical standpoint. Lanning was a bruiser at quarterback and his running ability gave him an added dimension to his game.
He ran for 518 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and became primarily a runner after junior Jacob Park took over starting duties. Lanning doesn’t view that running mentality to be much different from linebacker.
“It really hasn’t been that big of a challenge,” Lanning said. “I feel like the way I play on offense running the ball and stuff, I was physical. Like I said you’ve just got to run up and tackle someone.”
The mentality might not necessarily be different, but the way in which you view technique does need to change. As a quarterback, Lanning could dictate tempo and force his will into a game because of the nature of the position.
As a linebacker, particularly in the middle, he has to set the front seven on the defensive line and be reactive to whatever the offense throws at him. Oh, and there are those 300-plus pound offensive linemen who will be running his way.
“You can’t get enough of watching film on the offensive line and seeing your keys and seeing who you’ve got, whether it’s three receivers, who I’m guarding and stuff like that,” Lanning said. “No matter what position you are you’ve always got to watch film to make yourself better.”
Film sessions with junior Willie Harvey have helped, and both feel like they can learn from the other. But it’s the on-field reps that have jump-started Lanning’s growth. In a few scrimmages this spring, Lanning has gotten some tackles — a sack against quarterback Kyle Kempt stands out most.
As big a transition as it’s been for Lanning to shed his green practice jersey for a white one, it was equally jarring at first for teammates to see him flip sides of the field. Redshirt freshman Tymar Sutton is No. 2 at middle linebacker.
“Joel being such a threat last year on the offense and now he’s your best friend on defense, it’s kind of weird,” Harvey said. “It’s nice and working out pretty well.
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“The first day he came out knowing a lot, a lot more than I thought. I feel like it’ll be pretty good during our season.”
When Campbell and Lanning met to discuss this position change, the second-year Cyclones coach didn’t leave doubt as to the kind of role Manning could play this year.
“Coach Campbell told me, ‘If everything works out,’” Lanning said, “‘you’re probably going to be throwing up after all the games because you’re going to be playing so much.’”
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