AMES — Iowa State has a pair of juniors who will be anchors in the second level of the Cyclones’ defense in 2020.
Mike Rose and O’Rien Vance both are all-Big 12 caliber linebackers who will need to help bring along a new face at the other outside linebacker position.
Vance led the Cyclones in sacks with 6.5 and quarterback hurries with eight. Before he got injured against West Virginia, he led the Big 12 in sacks per game.
He proved to be a real pass-rush threat from his middle linebacker position.
Vance, a former Cedar Rapids Washington prep. was able to play middle linebacker last season because Rose, who was a freshman All-American in 2018, was willing to move from middle linebacker to outside linebacker to make room.
The switch didn’t appear to slow down Rose, who led Iowa State in tackles for loss with 9.5. He also was third on the team in tackles with 77.
Expect those two positions and those players to be the same in 2020.
“I never second-guessed the move,” Rose said last season. “Wherever the coaches wanted me to be, I was going to do it. It’s been good and I think it’s helped our defense with getting O’Rien Vance in there.”
It’s the spot vacated by second-team all-Big 12 linebacker Marcel Spears that’s up for grabs.
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Spears emerged as a sophomore and all he did was make big plays at his outside linebacker spot for the next three years.
He had a couple of interceptions he returned for touchdowns in his career and led Iowa State in tackles last season. He had seven pass breakups, the third most on Iowa State and the most among linebackers, and had eight tackles for loss. He was the Defensive Player of the Game in the Liberty Bowl his sophomore season.
Replacing him will be no small task.
Jake Hummel was Spears’ backup last season and filled in admirably when Spears needed a break.
Hummel is a senior from West Des Moines Dowling and has been a solid backup and special teams player. He played in all 13 games each of the last two seasons. As a sophomore, he had 31 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss as a key reserve.
Last season, as a junior, Hummel recorded 36 tackles. 4.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups and an interception.
His senior season will be his chance to claim the other outside linebacker spot and give Iowa State the opportunity to have another season of rock-solid linebacker play from all three spots.
Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock loves substituting players on all three levels of the defense to keep players fresh, which is why a guy like Hummel got so much playing time with an all-Big 12 linebacker in front of him.
There’s no reason Heacock won’t continue to substitute often.
The backup linebacker spots are mostly up for grabs and are a great opportunity for a young player to get playing time, like Hummel did the past two years.
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Sophomore Gerry Vaughn appears to be following in that Hummel-type path. He primarily played on special teams last season as a freshman but the coaches liked what they have seen and will give Vaughn every chance to earn time on the field.
Jatairis Grant is an interesting case. He’s a senior who has moved from safety to linebacker. He’ll likely be used in passing situations as a glorified nickel back.
Lastly, Aric Horne is a name Iowa State Coach Matt Campbell brought up during bowl practices as a player who was standing out. Horne redshirted last season, but if Campbell mentions your name as someone who is standing out during your redshirt season, that usually bodes well for your playing time the next season — examples include receiver Tarique Milton, offensive lineman Trevor Downing and even Vance at one time.
It doesn’t mean Horne will win the backup job but he’ll get his chance.
The Cyclones are in a good spot as far as linebackers go as long as the young pieces can develop into key backups.