AMES — Iowa State football has two bonafide linebackers on the outside, and no matter which way Matt Campbell and his staff slice it, the Cyclones will have a first-year starter at middle linebacker.
The two on the outside, strong-side linebacker Willie Harvey and weak-side linebacker Marcel Spears, combined for 183 tackles and 20 tackles for loss last season.
“(Spears), how much he’s grown, it’s really amazing,” Harvey said. “He’s such a good player and he’s going to be one of the best linebackers to ever play here.”
Spears showed flashes of the potential Harvey spoke about. He recorded 11 or more tackles three times — including a career-high 17 against Iowa. He also had two game-sealing interceptions — one being a pick-six against Texas Tech.
But there were games Spears disappeared. Against Akron and Kansas State he recorded four and three tackles, respectively. Spears had 107 tackles last season, but if he can become a more consistent player for Campbell, he has a chance to be a real force in the Big 12.
“(Spears) is a leader for us on the field, he is a leader off the field for us,” linebackers coach Tyson Veidt said. “You hope he can make every single play he made last fall for us, plus a few more — that’d be a really good year.”
Harvey is a four-year player and his production has steadily grown each year.
Veidt said he’s had his best offseason since the new staff arrived.
“He had his best spring, and he’s currently having his best camp, since we’ve been here,” Veidt said. “It’s really encouraging for us, encouraging for him, encouraging for the defense and encouraging for our entire team. He was a consistent and steady guy for us. That’s a credit to him, his work ethic and what he’s done to put himself in this position.
“He’s doing a really good job with the younger guys, too.”
Helping the younger guys might be more important than Harvey’s role on the field.
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Veidt said they tried out six guys total at the middle linebacker spot — including Harvey, briefly.
Now, they’re down to three — redshirt freshman and Cedar Rapids native O’Rien Vance, who has been the apparent leader since spring, redshirt junior Bobby McMillen, who moved from the outside to the inside and true freshman Mike Rose, who has blown the staff away with his motor.
“Taking on my leadership role and leading those young guys and learning more and being a mental leader out there on the field for my guys,” Harvey said. “That would be my biggest gain.”
Iowa State’s defense is designed for linebackers to make plays. Campbell wants his defensive linemen to take on multiple offensive linemen to allow his linebackers to fill gaps and make plays. It’s imperative that the Cyclones find the right fit for the middle linebacker spot.
“To me it’s consistency,” Campbell said. “We’ll play who I trust. That comes from earning it over the next couple of weeks and earning it from what they’ve done over the last six months. That’s what’s great about having competition in your football program — it brings the best out of everybody. I think (middle linebacker) is unique, but the consistency — especially at mike linebacker, that guy not only has to be a consistent performer, but that guy also has to be a consistent leader on that football field. He has to be a great communicator and he has to set the tone.”
If Iowa State is able to find its middle linebacker, and avoid an unnecessary carousel, Spears and Harvey should be able to provide stability on the outside to allow the linebackers to have another impactful season.
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