START/FINISH: How ISU’s depth and competition frames both time frames

Sep 8, 2018; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Willie Harvey (2) tackles Iowa Hawkeyes running back Mekhi Sargent (10) at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Iowa State lockdown cornerback Brian Peavy’s made more career starts (39) than any other Cyclone.

Versatile inebacker Wille Harvey comes next, at 34.

 Both are seniors. Both have fully earned their respective No. 1 spots on a week-to-week basis. And neither takes anything for granted — as it should be.

 “This is it for me,” said Harvey, who likely will climb into the top 10 in ISU annals for tackles for loss and sacks this season. “If I want to make a statement — if I want to let people know what I can do, this is my last chance.”

 That sense of urgency — for seniors and true freshman alike — now permeates the Cyclones’ entire program.

 Burgeoning depth has allowed players of all age groups to excel situationally. So, as important as that number of starts stat may be for each player, there’s a hidden element to seek out in Saturday’s 6 p.m. matchup with No. 6 West Virginia at Jack Trice Stadium and beyond.

 Pointedly, who’s on the field during “crunch time?”

 Hint: It’s not always the “starter” — though in Peavy’s and Harvey’s case, it almost certainly is.

 “I think as we’ve built this program, we’ve talked in that alignment because, again, that’s where the ego aspect of, ‘Man, who’s the starter? What’s the depth chart?’ — and I think you guys know me, I couldn’t care less what the depth chart says,” said ISU coach Matt Campbell, whose upstart team (2-3, 1-2 Big 12) aims to topple the league’s lone unbeaten team in the Mountaineers (5-0, 3-0). “(When ISU spokesman Mike Green) comes in every Sunday, I say, ‘I don’t care what you put on it.’ I know you guys care, but I don’t, because I know what happens on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday dictates who gets the most amount of reps — what happens in a game on Saturday. And our kids know that. We’ve built this on that foundation to say, ‘Hey, listen. You’re gonna earn the right to play on Saturday. If you do right, we’re gonna get you into the game. That gives you that situation to be able to showcase what you can do and the more you do with it the better you’re gonna be.’”

 Veteran? Rookie? An up-and-down junior?

 Nothing’s etched in stone in terms of a starting lineup from Saturday to Saturday, which is one of the reasons Campbell has often said he enjoys practice every week even more than the games.

 That’s when the real work happens. The connections are made. The competition intensifies and sometimes — ideally, perhaps — the outcome at a certain position amounts to a virtual draw.

As in: One player shines in situations ‘X’ and ‘Y.’ The other steps up strongest in situation ‘Z.’

“So I think what our kids have adopted is that understanding of why,” Campbell said. “And, yeah, the starting piece is great. I’m not saying not to have that as a goal and an aspiration, but the reality of it is when the game’s on the line, who’s in the football game? And when it’s the most critical moments, who are we putting in to be as successful as we can possibly be? That’s where you want to get yourself and that’s where we’re always as a coaching staff talking about, not moreso, who’s the starter? It’s who in those critical moments are in that game and are we trying to have funnel the game around in certain situations.”

 Nowhere, perhaps, is that delineation more clear than at MIKE linebacker, where true freshman Mike Rose has started every game this season and played very well. Nonetheless, when obvious passing downs crop up, redshirt freshman O’Rien Vance often takes the field. He may take it more, too, as individual fortunes rise, fall, then rise again.

 “The reality of it is, is I don’t even know if we look at it as who’s the starter,” Campbell said. “We look at it as, ‘Man, we need two guys at each position on that side of the ball to be able to play for us.’ The closer we can get to even reps, the better football team we’re gonna be, because those guys can be fresh against Big 12 opponents and offenses that are really gonna force you to play. So I don’t see it as a battle for who’s the starter. I see it as we’ve got two guys playing at a really high rate for us right now and giving us chances to be successful. I’m really proud of O’Rien because I think his growth has been outstanding. Kind of was dinged up a little bit in fall camp. A lot of guys it would have really been hard on, especially when a (true) freshman like Mike (Rose) steps up and plays really well early in the season, to be discouraged. But we had some really good conversations. Coach (Tyson) Veidt’s done a good job with him about staying the course. Just keep getting better, control you, don’t control the situation and he’s done a great job with that.”

 The “situation” takes care of itself,  thanks to quality depth.

 Developing it begins in practice and continues when the spotlight shines on Saturdays. Veterans know how to handle it. Less experienced players are learning as they go, side by side, from week to week, as it should be.

 And here’s a jaw-dropping stat: 11 different Cyclones have combined for the team’s 13 sacks.

 Tackles for loss? 17 unique defenders have contributed to the total of 44. 

 “We’re all helping each other out,” said backup WILL linebacker Jake Hummel, one of seven Cyclones to record a sack in last week’s 48-42 win at Oklahoma State. “We’re all giving each other keys to look up. It’s a pretty cool place to be, with those guys. It’s fun.”

 That same word applies to a night game against a top-six team. And the more breaths each ISU player can draw between full-throttle plays, the better, especially on defense against Will Grier and company.

 Experience matters. The right mindset matters even more, no matter your age.

 “It all starts with your mentality, which is something I didn’t know when I was younger, obviously, ” Harvey said of encounters with big moments. “Now being a senior and being here for so long, your mental (state) is probably your strongest asset so you’ve really got to get that right. When you get that right, it just flows behind it.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.