Marcel Spears dropped his head and thought for a moment before answering the question.
The linebacker from Olathe, Kan. had just finished compiling 17 tackles and forcing a fumble in a 44-41 overtime loss to in-state rival Iowa. Only a few months after being an unknown reserve on the Iowa State roster, the redshirt sophomore was on the verge of becoming a breakout star.
But first, he was still disappointed in the outcome against the Hawkeyes.
“Just in my head (I kept) telling myself, ‘Just keep working. Don’t stop until the clock hits all zeros,’” Spears said. “That’s what motivated me. I wanted to win, but you know…”
Roughly a month later, Spears had his first signature moment as he streaked through the Texas Tech backfield to intercept a screen pass and take it to the end zone, sealing a victory over the Red Raiders.
The next week, his second signature moment came when he blocked out a TCU receiver and intercepted Kenny Hill’s last pass, giving the Cyclones a win over No. 4 TCU. He held the football to his ear like a telephone and pointed to the sky.
“I had to call God,” Spears told me after the win over the Horned Frogs. “I was blessed and I had to call God.”
Fast forward 11 months, Spears enters the 2018 season far from an unknown commodity — at least in Cyclone corners of the world. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound honorable mention All-Big 12 selection is considered one of the cornerstones of what figures to be one of the best Iowa State defenses in recent memory.
This weekend, when the Cyclones take the field at Kinnick Stadium to take on the hated Hawkeyes (4 p.m. on FOX), Spears will be looked upon as a leader. A long ways from being the surprise of the Cyclones’ 2017 pre-fall camp depth chart.
“(Marcel)’s a great dude, great player, better person,” Spears’ linebacker running mate, Willie Harvey, told me on Tuesday. “I feel like that game really boosted his confidence. He’s continued to grow and grow into a leader role for this team. It’s been great for him.”
Spears’ climb to being one of the most respected members of Iowa State’s roster has been well documented. It started with a meeting with defensive coordinator Jon Heacock during the spring of 2017 that motivated Spears to elevate his game.
To this day, I have never heard Spears talk about the true content of that meeting outside of a one-word quote of “motivation.” But, anytime I have seen it brought up, Spears instantly lights up.
He remembers where he had to come from in order to reach the point he is at. It was the moment when he had to put up or shut up and take advantage of the talents given to him by God.
He certainly took advantage of them last season against Iowa, then again in a 14 tackle performance against Texas, then again against Texas Tech, then TCU, then again, ah, you get the point.
“I think the biggest thing for Marcel is, again, like some of these other guys, that maybe had some success as they grew as football players last year, it’s the opportunity to have success and have some failures along the way, learn from them, grow from them,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said. “You’ve got to remember, Marcel, last year was really his first year ever getting meaningful reps at linebacker. That was it. He was able to, I think, put together and Marcel’s a really smart football player, having that opportunity to put those pluses and those minuses together this offseason, how do I perfect my craft? How do I work?”
Everyone has a starting point for when they truly first take advantage of their abilities. For Marcel Spears, it was against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Jack Trice Stadium last September.
He will have another chance to take advantage of those abilities again this weekend. If he does, I’m sure he will hold the football to his ear and point to the sky.
Sometimes you need to call God.
“Marcel physically, he’s changed his body,” Campbell said. “He looks bigger and better than he ever has. I think he’s a guy that’s on a mission to become the best version of himself that he possibly can be.”