AMES — Iowa State had 18 high school commits in its 2015 class.
That class were true freshmen during Paul Rhoads’ last season in Ames and it’s the class that had to endure the coaching change as Matt Campbell took the reins.
Of those 18, only six remain on the team. Most transferred.
Only Julian Good-Jones, Bryce Meeker, Marcel Spears, Bobby McMillen, Sheldon Croney and Landen Akers remain.
Hakeem Butler also was a part of that class but he declared for the NFL Draft after last season.
Iowa State will honor those six along with the 14 other seniors on the 2019 team on Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium as the 22nd-ranked Cyclones (6-4, 4-3) host Kansas (3-7, 1-6) at 11 a.m.
“These guys stayed the course,” Campbell said. “In today’s society, that’s hard to do.
“There’s another group of guys that we recruited and they didn’t know Iowa State from any other institution — they probably didn’t know Matt Campbell from any other institution. Yet these guys were able to say, ‘This is what we want to do here. This is our vision.’
“These guys were able to buy in on complete blind faith. What this collection of 20 guys has done is they’ve put reality to vision. There were senior classes before them that helped lead the way, but these guys — and you talk about the Ray Limas and the Marcel Spearses and so many other players — they’re a really special group and a group that means a great deal to me. It’s a group that’s had an impact on, not only now, but the future of this football program.”
Even the ones who stayed, like Spears, didn’t buy in right away. He needed convincing that change would happen.
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“It took a lot of prayer and a lot of looking in the mirror and a lot of change on my end to start believing in his vision,” Spears said. “The belief in the vision grew as time passed. You just saw more and more people trust and believing that we could actually win. We just started believing that we had a chance and that we could do it.”
That’s one aspect Campbell underappreciated when he took over.
He figured that 18- to 22-year-olds would be able to believe and have faith things would change for the better.
“When you’re struggling, and there’s consistency of struggle, I think creating a sense of belief is one of the things that’s hard — at least from my own experience here,” Campbell said. “That’s the one thing I didn’t realize. You see 18- to-22 year-olds and at 18-to-22 you think you can do anything but I think sometimes when that spirit gets battered, it becomes a real challenge to break. I probably underestimated the value of that spirit.”
Spears helped spearhead the change for Campbell.
Spears has recorded 249 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, four interceptions, two pick-6s and two forced fumbles since he became a starting linebacker in 2017.
This season, he leads the team in tackles with 73, has eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four passes defended and two hurries.
While Spears has been an all-Big 12 performer throughout his career on the field, it’s what Campbell sees off the field that separates him.
“I think for me, and hopefully there’s still some moments left out there, but I think the two things that I really appreciate about Marcel,” Campbell said, “(are) No. 1, some of those instincts. The TCU game in 2017 when he had nine tackles and an interception and the two Texas Tech interceptions for touchdowns. Those are all awesome. Those are all great things and probably those, when you say ‘Marcel Spears,’ those immediately come to my mind of memories of him as a player.
“But I think for me, the greatest memories that I’ll have is he’s a great leader here. Marcel’s one of those guys who has the ‘it’ factor. He’s going to be really special in life after he’s done playing football.”
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Spears was the leader in the offseason and took the bull by the horns during the hard times and the hard days.
“I think, for me, as much as the football memories, it’s going to be those vocal and those leadership and mentorship memories that I’m going to have of Marcel,” Campbell said. “I’m really proud of him and really glad I get to still coach him here for another month and a half left of football.”
Four years ago, Spears could’ve joined the 11 other players in his class who transferred.
But he stayed. And his reward is a third-straight bowl game after the final two regular-season games.
“It was all blind faith,” Spears said. “You had to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I can transfer because a different coach came in.’ Or, you could just improve and try to better yourself and pray that everything is happening for a reason.
“I’m extremely happy I decided to say. Being able to stay here with Coach Campbell and the coaching staff and being around these players — they put in a lot of work. Like you’ve seen, no one here gives up.
“I think it was a perfect decision to stay.”
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