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AMES - Iowa State has three all-conference linebackers returning in 2021.
Mike Rose is the reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the year, Jake Hummel received honorable mention all-Big 12 and O'Rien Vance was honorable mention in 2019.
When Hummel elected to return for a second senior season, it ensured the Cyclones' already established linebacker group would be the rock of the defense.
Even with all of the returning experience and talent, linebackers coach Tyson Veidt believes the group has plenty of room to grow.
Rose led the team with 96 tackles and five interceptions, the latter tops among all linebackers in the nation last season. He also had 10.5 tackles for loss, six hurries and two pass breakups.
The only noticeable hole was converting those hurries into sacks. Rose only had 1.5 last season. Veidt wants that number to go up.
'We feel like Mike has a lot of room to grow in the pass-rush game and that's been a point of emphasis for us as we begin spring,” Veidt said.
Rose is in lock-step with his coach. The All-American knows he has room to grow.
'Mike Rose was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year but he still feels like he has a lot more to accomplish,” Veidt said. 'The guys that were most excited about Mike getting that award were O'Rien Vance and Jake Hummel.
'If you were to ask Mike if that award was the end of the road, he would not agree with that. He believes there's more for him and especially us as a defense to accomplish.”
While Rose's sack numbers don't jump off the page, he actually had the most among Iowa State linebackers. Vance had one sack and Hummel none.
In 2019, Vance led Iowa State in sacks with 6.5. But in 2020, the linebackers' role wasn't to rush the passer. The Cyclones had two of the most dominant pass rushers in the Big 12 last season in JaQuan Bailey and Will McDonald, both all-conference players.
McDonald had 10.5 sacks and Bailey had seven. In 2019, Bailey missed most of the season with injury, so the coaches needed to send Vance on more blitzes to pressure the quarterback. With Bailey and McDonald last year, they could rush just three and get plenty of pressure.
Now, with Bailey's graduation, the linebackers might have to take more of the pass-rushing onus.
'We've played the same defense, schematically, the last few years, but we're doing different things within it,” Veidt said. 'Our goal is to complement our other linebackers as well as the other guys on the defense. The first guys to fit in after the defensive line is the linebackers. O'Rien has been a good pass rusher for us but he's still continuing to work on it.”
Rose and Vance, who will both be seniors next season, have been productive players since they stepped on the field at ISU.
Hummel played as a true freshman, but mostly on special teams. He didn't earn a spot as a starting linebacker until last season as a senior, but he made the most of it by recording 77 tackles, the second most on the team.
Even though he proved he was a productive linebacker, he still was depended on to be an important piece on the special teams unit.
'Our hope is that we're bringing in another guy just like Jake this fall,” Veidt said. 'It's really hard to take Jake Hummel off the field for special teams. It's mentally and physically demanding and you have to have the durability to hold up on special teams as well as still be able to play at a high level on the defensive side of the ball.”
Hummel's development trajectory is exactly what head coach Matt Campbell's ISU teams have become known for. His program is able to take relatively under-the-radar players and get more out of them than most thought possible.
Even though Hummel has come a long way, he believes there's more out there for him.
'He's been a leader for us,” Veidt said. 'He played his best football at the Fiesta Bowl and that's really encouraging for us. We had a practice on Monday and as we went back and watched it, it was his best practice we've ever watched of him.
'He's trying to be the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, in my opinion. That's how he's working. We're starting to notice that every day.”