Iowa State junior offensive lineman Collin Olson (63) blocks against TCU. (Photo courtesy Iowa State Athletics)
AMES — If it’s good enough for Joel Lanning, it’s good enough for me.
Essentially, that’s how former Iowa State down-the-depth-chart defensive lineman Collin Olson quickly came to view a fateful conversion-based conversation head coach Matt Campbell initiated around the Dec. 31 Liberty Bowl win at Memphis.
“He just asked me if I had any interest in moving to the O-line,” recalls Olson, who’s poised to make his third straight start at right guard in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. ESPN2-televised Big 12 matchup at No. 25 Oklahoma State.
Olson’s initial reaction?
“Honestly, I didn’t,” he said.
One deep breath later, Olson — who played on the same 2012 Ankeny High School Class 4-A football championship team as Lanning, the ISU QB-turned-linebacker did — was all in.
“He said, ‘Get back to me whenever you (can),” said Olson, who saw his first meaningful game action in the 37-27 loss to No. 5 Oklahoma after Josh Mueller got hurt. “I said, ‘No, coach. If you want me there, I’m moving for the team.’”
Olson, a lifelong Cyclones fan, never dreamed the switch would ignite a rapid rise toward real and protracted playing time.
Nonetheless the 6-1, 279-pound junior embarked on a crash course with offensive line coach Jeff Myers that simultaneously buoyed his confidence while turning his mentor’s heads.
“I think the thing for me about Collin is, number one, before we went into spring ball, how do we give you a chance to get on the field?” Campbell said. “Whether it happened or not, how do we at least put you in a position where you can do it? The second thing is, you know, all of a sudden he puts the time, effort, energy and work ethic into it and I’ll be honest with you, by fall camp we’re like, ‘Man, this guy’s really playing good football. How do we continue to help this guy and sooner or later this guy’s gonna get an opportunity and lo and behold that opportunity comes.’ He’s really done a great job. In two football games he’s graded out in our champions’ club, which is really, to be honest with you, it’s been phenomenal to watch. Very few linemen have done that in our first couple of starts as an offensive lineman, so I think it will be really fun to continue to watch his growth and what he does.”
Olson’s unlikely emergence has helped solidify a unit that was grossly overmatched in the 13-3 season-opening loss at Iowa. Since then, ISU’s O-line has markedly improved. Olson’s not the sole reason, of course, but he’s been a spark.
“A new opportunity is always — some guys can take it and run with it and it works out being a great thing for them and sometimes it doesn’t for other guys,” Cyclones quarterbacks coach Joel Gordon said. “But for him, he’s been incredible.”
Next step: Helping that unit pave the way for a more productive offense than can shake off the effects of a 1-3 start.
The Cowboys flash multiple looks on defense and balance risk-reward situations extremely well.
They’ve posted 24 sacks, which leads the nation.
Defensive end Jordan Brailford boasts a staggering seven sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss this season, so ISU’s offensive line will once again be front and center on a national stage.
“I think we’ve gotten better every week and I don’t think it’s just showing up in the games, it’s showing up in practice,” left guard Josh Knipfel said. “We’re getting better in practice and we’re gonna keep watching film and everything. The trust keeps building, the confidence keeps building. That’s what you need in a good offensive line.”
It’s what you need in a good offensive line story, too.
Olson had to basically relearn his approach to the game from Jan. 1 on.
Former Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads recruited him as a walk-on in spite of iffy “measurables,” that attracted zero Division I scholarship offers.
Tenacity prodded “too short, too slow” Olson to weather the change in coaching staffs and sides of the ball, leaping from no-shot to long-shot performer — and for now, at least, a starter.
“Coming off the ball is different,” he said. “Your weight shift’s gotta be different, so I just had to do a lot of skill work with the older guys. Bryce (Meeker) and Julian (Good-Jones) helped me a lot and Knip — Josh Knipfel. Just getting in there with them, learning the intricacies of where I need to put my weight in pass and not changing up, tipping anything between pass and run stances. Stuff like that. I’ve always been a pretty smart football player so picking up the offense wasn’t too hard, because I was in there with coach Myers for two or three weeks, just grinding away at it.”
He’s not alone. The offensive line still must make significant strides to become an overall strength for the Cyclones, but whether Olson provides depth, or more starts, the obstacles to success for the unit slowly shrink from towering to surmountable.
“His story is crazy,” Knipfel said. “He’s done a really good job. Josh got banged up a little bit and he’s getting back, getting healthy. He’s done a good job just coming in and doing what he needs to do. Oklahoma game, came in and did a great job. That’s all we ask. That’s not just for him, that’s for everyone in the offensive line room.”
The whole team, really. Just like Lanning did by swallowing his pride and trading his quarterback job for a now-celebrated MIKE possibility.
“I went to high school with him too so he’s been a good role model my entire life,” Olson said of Lanning, who like him also starred in baseball and wrestling in high school. “Just seeing the success he had and the willingness he had to do anything for the team, it’s just easy to follow a role like that and just help the team in any way.”