SELF-STARTER: ISU LB O’Rien Vance has “reached his full potential,” but still has more to give

Sep 4, 2021; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State Cyclones linebacker O’Rien Vance (34) celebrates a stop against Northern Iowa in the first half at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Everyone took note of preternaturally talented Iowa State edge rusher Will McDonald’s back-to-back sacks late in Saturday’s tense game against Oklahoma State.

 They were, after all, mammoth plays in the Cyclones’ victory over the then-No. 8 Cowboys.

But when ISU head coach Matt Campbell spoke at Monday’s team meeting, he focused on the play right before those two quarterback takedowns — and the player at the center of it: Senior linebacker O’Rien Vance.

“We bring pressure,” said Campbell, whose No. 22 Cyclones (5-2, 3-1) face West Virginia (3-4, 1-3) at 1 p.m. Saturday in Morgantown. “They actually run the perfect call offensively against it and his drop is a lead off of No. 2, and he’s got the ability where the quarterback wants to go where it should go, but he can’t make it because O’Rien’s exactly where he needs to be when he needs to be there. I think that’s what you talk about senior veteran leadership, a guy doing the little thing that nobody else sees, but man, that might have been the difference in the football game.”

 Sometimes the game-changing product of work done “in the dark” can be overshadowed in broad daylight.

 Vance’s play that made OSU quarterback Spencer Sanders’s pass intended for Brennan Presley impossible to complete wasn’t flashy. It was simply a vital read that greatly enhanced ISU’s chances for a third straight Big 12 win. Vance did the right things because he’s about the right things — and that includes being patient as he’s been eased back into game action the past four games after suffering a hamstring injury in the opener. 

 “I feel like it’s been a lot easier than it would have been in the past, with how much I’ve grown,” said Vance, who notched a near season-high four tackles in last week’s win. “I feel like also having Mike (Rose) and Jake (Hummel), it makes it a lot easier for me to come back and still be in a rhythm with everybody.”

It also helped that his backup, Gerry Vaughn, stepped in for him against Iowa and UNLV and the defense didn’t skip a beat. Vaughn’s ability also enabled Vance to slowly ratchet up his snap count. There’s no rush when there’s no panic.

 “Gerry Vaughn did a great job,” Vance said. “Amazing. I knew for a fact I had confidence in him that he was gonna go out and do his job. He’s been one of those young guys that’s actually been working and he’s been in the film room studying (like) crazy. I had all faith in him that he was gonna go out and do what he needed to do.”

 That’s where all of the Cyclones find themselves this Saturday in Morgantown. The Mountaineers boast a strong pass rush, ranking third in the Big 12 in sacks. They also seek to strike a balance on offense, but so far this season, that’s been a fruitless quest.

 Quarterback Jarret Doege leads the conference in passing yards per game (243), but his touchdown to interception ratio is a modest 8-to-5. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers rank 87th nationally in yards per rushing attempt (3.7) despite having one of the premier backs in the league in Leddie Brown (4.5 yards per carry, nine touchdowns).

 So West Virginia’s still trying to find itself — but is also talented and dangerous enough to complete that task on Saturday against the favored Cyclones.

 “I think this West Virginia team is one of the most talented teams we play,” Campbell said. “I think they’re a young team that’s as up-and-coming as anybody in our conference. They have a lot of youth, but boy oh boy, do they have a lot of talent. … They’re as talented as any young team in our conference and you can tell they’re confident and they’ll be ready to roll.”

 So will Vance, who has steadily settled back into his role as a key disruptor in the middle of ISU’s defense. He notched two overlooked but important quarterback hurries in the win at Kansas State and continues to do more of those little things that make a big difference — albeit it without headlines. 

 Still, missing two full games earlier this season was tough on Vance. He’s a full-throttle type of guy. Idling clashes with his identity. He’d started 12 games each of the past two seasons and 28 in his career. He’s full-go, or nothing feels right.

“No one wants to sit out,” Vance said. “Other than that, it was just having the mindset that I will be back and eventually, I’ve got to come back stronger than I did before I got hurt. It was just one of those things where I know I had someone (Vaughn) who was going to be able to stand in and do what they needed to do. I just had confidence and I just helped myself.”

As for that savvy play before McDonald’s two high-profile plays last Saturday, Vance shrugged it off. 

 “It’s just doing your job,” he said. “As long as you’re doing your job in our defense, you will be in the right spot.”

 Spoken like a man who’s been there, done that — and is now just rounding out his development as a student, athlete and man. Vance already has earned his bachelor’s degree and is now taking graduate classes. The shirt he wore for Tuesday’s media session was emblazoned with the words, “Cyclones Serve.”

 “I feel like you should always give back, regardless of the situation,” Vance said. 

 He’s done that, but there’s still more to offer, even if his contributions are sometimes obscured, like on that key play Campbell spoke to the team about, where Vance just “did his job,”and thus had a major impact on the game’s outcome.

“The next two plays Will has (consecutive sacks) and (they) punt the ball,” Campbell reiterated. “We kind of know how it goes from there, but it’s that play, in my opinion — the perfect call offensively against maybe what could have been the worst call defensively, and yet O’Rien Vance makes the play in the moment. I think that’s what’s so special about O’Rien and I think he would be a guy that would tell you his story here. I mean, a guy that started off academically, you know, maybe not the most important thing and leaving here graduating with over a 3.75 GPA. … You talk (about) reaching your full potential in every way shape and form on the field, in the classroom, who he is in the community — he’s reached his full potential. So for us, I think everybody here, we’re very proud of them. Everybody here is really excited that he is healthy because he’s a key piece of our success for sure.”