Oct 29, 2016; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Joel Lanning (7) sets the offense at the goal line against the Kansas State Wildcats at Jack Trice Stadium. The Wildcats beat the Cyclones 31-26. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — He’s making mistakes, but not repeating them. He’s popping pads and drilling ball carriers. He’s the starting MIKE linebacker “right now.”
Yeah, Joel Lanning’s versatility and athleticism makes that new job “his to lose” at this point – and he’s anything but a loser.
“He’ll take on any challenge,” Lanning’s legendary high school coach Jerry Pezzetti told me a couple of years ago.
Indeed he will. Lanning’s shift from starting quarterback to de facto captain of the defense has been impressive. When we first learned of it this winter, Cyclones coach Matt Campbell indicated it was about getting the best players on the field someway, somehow.
Tuesday, linebackers coach Tyson Veidt said the 6-2, 225-pound Lanning’s devotion to the game shows in how he’s reacted to being the second-string quarterback behind Jacob Park.
To wit, Lanning decided to be first-string again somewhere else — and in short order.
“He’s the No. 1 MIKE linebacker for us right now,” Veidt said. “He’s doing a great job there running with the (number) ones and it’s certainly his job right now to lose.”
Key words: “right now.”
Plenty will shake out in this Saturday’s scrimmage and the April 8 spring game. But Lanning’s body — and body of work — points to him maintaining a strong presence on the field.
ISU seeks to rebound from three straight bowl-less seasons and Lanning’s as intent as anyone on leading a win/loss-based renaissance during his senior campaign.
“Shoot, in my career I’ve had like three coordinators, two head coaches, so I’ve ran through playbooks plenty of times,” said Lanning, who has thrown 19 career touchdown passes and seven interceptions. “So going to the other side of the ball is not going to be any different from learning new things, or a new offense. Nothing crazy. I’m not really surprised. I’m athletic enough to do it.”
Lanning’s peers elected him team captain last season. He’s a leader, a winner, a do-anything guy who hasn’t played linebacker since the eighth grade.
But the shift invigorates him. He still plans to be the short-yardage and “running quarterback.” Whatever it takes to succeed as a team, Lanning’s on board.
“It really hasn’t been that big of a challenge,” he said. “I feel like the way I play on offense, running the ball and stuff, I was physical, so you’ve just got to run up and tackle someone. It’s kind of like running the ball. … I’ve been physical my whole career.”
Lanning said the transition to chasing the football rather than delivering it has been challenging. That’s natural and expected. What’s not difficult: excelling on the field, whatever his role.
“No. 1, Joel’s a great person, so you knew you were getting that at the linebacker position, which is obviously very important,” Veidt said. “No. 2, he’s one of our top football players on the team and, again, coach Campbell is trying to get the best players on the field at the best spots for us to give us the best chance of winning and that’s certainly what we’re doing.”
If that means Lanning starts on defense alongside junior Wille Harvey — who tied for the team lead in tackles last season with 79 — so be it. Again, it’s his job “to lose” and Lanning’s never warmed up to setbacks.
“Coach Campbell told me if everything works out, you’re probably going to be throwing up after all the games because you’re going to be playing so much,” he said.
Sounds good? Sounds great.
“It was kind of awkward at first, man,” said Harvey, who also ranked second in tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (3.0) last season. “I mean, Joel being such a threat last year on offense and now he’s your best friend on defense, so it’s kind of weird, but it’s nice. It’s working out pretty well.”
And for Lanning, other than solidifying his role as the No. 1 MIKE linebacker, the only remaining kink to work out is who wears number seven on his jersey.
Both he and Harvey share that single, lucky digit. Lanning said as a senior, he’ll likely keep it. Harvey shook his head.
“I’m not trying to give it up, he’s not trying to give it up, so we might have to get a weight lifting competition or a race or something like that,” Harvey said.
Another challenge? Bring it on.
“You’ve got to get used to it,” Lanning said of his new job on the defensive side. “Running up in the trenches and there’s some 300-pound dudes trying to kill you, I’ve kind of gotten used to that a little bit, but it’s kind of like running the ball, too. You’ve just got to go hit someone.”