Photo via Cyclones.com.
Marcel Spears’ eyes got wide as he pondered the scenario that had been presented.
The Cyclones’ senior linebacker has been front and center in some of the biggest moments of the resurgence of Iowa State football over the last two years.
The huge pick-six in Lubbock in 2016, the game-sealing interception against TCU the following week, multiple Cy-Hawk contests and another crucial interception returned for a score against the Red Raiders last season. None of those moments phased him.
But, when asked what would be going through his mind if he was tasked with blocking Iowa State sophomore defensive end Zach Petersen on a kickoff return, Spears’ mind went racing for an answer.
“Oh my…,” Spears said. “I’d be looking at him thinking, ‘I’ve got to cut his legs or something. I’ve got to jump at his legs because I don’t think I can stop him up top.”‘
Senior offensive lineman Collin Olson had a similar answer, but also noted he had no idea if throwing a cut block on a kickoff is even legal. Sorry, Collin, cut blocks are not legal on kickoffs.
Maybe, that is partially why Petersen, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs more than 260-pounds, has become a star on the Cyclones’ kickoff coverage team since working his way onto the unit as a true freshman last season. He has used that opportunity as a vehicle to showcase his high-motor and work his way into a key role in Iowa State’s defense, his rise culminating this past weekend with a six tackle, one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry and 0.5 tackles for loss performance in his first career start at defensive end.
Oh, and he made perhaps the most impressive play of the day — of course on kickoff coverage — when he stripped the ball loose from TCU’s star return man Jalen Reagor to set up a Cyclone touchdown.
“It’s always fun to go down there. The coaches don’t like it because I’m sprinting down there and might be a little tired for defense,” Petersen said of covering kickoffs. “I don’t know why, but in high school, I always loved going down there to go and set the edge or do whatever they need me to do. I like being on special teams. It’s a good time.”
Brock Purdy arrived on campus at the same time as Petersen in the summer of 2018. The Cyclones’ star quarterback could immediately see the work ethic and determination that would allow Petersen to flourish early on in his career.
Purdy said the North Scott product was the first guy in the facility every day. He was always one of the last ones to leave. The star signal-caller could clearly see Petersen would do anything he could in order to help the team as fast as he possibly could in his college career.
Even if that meant running down the field with reckless abandon on kickoff coverage.
“I’d be really scared, for one,” the always unflappable Purdy said of the idea of trying to block Petersen. “I’d probably just fall right down if he came at me because that’s a scary sight.”
With the way Petersen’s career has started, his own quarterback is, more than likely, not the last one who will ever fear the idea of him running at them full speed. He has already accumulated 18 tackles, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries so far this season.
That is especially impressive when you find out Iowa State nearly asked Petersen to greyshirt – the process of signing in the winter and not arriving on campus until after the first semester of their freshman year – before head coach Matt Campbell got an opportunity to see him up close and personal.
“What a ding dong I was for thinking we were going to greyshirt Zach Petersen,” Campbell said on Monday. “We’ve had that conversation before. In all honesty, Zach was a little bit skinny. He didn’t look like this WWE wrestler that he does now. He was skinny. He was a little bit undersized, but what I think I loved about Zach was the motor that you saw, and we’re seeing now. I said, ‘Man if this guy grows into his body, he’s going to have a chance to be a great player.’ That all changed for me when I went and watched him wrestle in Waterloo. I watched this guy pin somebody in 11 seconds. It was a tournament. Then, the next guy two hours later in about 24 seconds. I’m like, ‘We can’t greyshirt this guy. This guy is good enough to play for our football team now.’ I’m really glad we made that decision.”
Campbell might have been a “ding dong” for thinking it would be smart to ask Petersen to greyshirt, but the ding dong now is the one who decides to try and stay in front of him on a kickoff.