Gerry Vaughn is the rock on an otherwise very fluid depth chart for ISU linebackers

Iowa State linebacker Gerry Vaughn stands for a photo during media day at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register-USA TODAY NETWORK

 AMES — Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock was recently asked to break down the depth chart at linebacker.

 The veteran coach didn’t flinch.

 “I can’t,” Heacock said. “And that’s a good thing.”

 That’s because beyond longtime starter Gerry Vaughn, several Cyclone linebackers have shined at times throughout spring ball, summer workouts and fall camp. The crux of the competition for the other two spots alongside Vaughn naturally centers on consistency — and those who maintain it will obviously rise to the top. So expect them to lean on Vaughn, who joined a team-wide trend in adding so-called “good weight” during the offseason.

 “I feel like I’ve grown physically and mentally, just with helping younger guys understand the defense,” said Vaughn, a 5-11, 231-pound senior. “And obviously (I’ve improved) everywhere if I’m being honest. Upper body, lower body, with my speed as well, so everything’s improved.”

 And most everything around him is new, too.

 Vaughn will make his 19th career start in the Cyclones’ Sept. 2 season opener (1 p.m., ESPN+) against Northern Iowa. No other ISU linebacker has made a single start, but former Harlan standout Will McLaughlin gained valuable experience in 12 games as a true freshman last season. Add Missouri transfer Zach Lovett to the mix, along with two other mid-year enrollees and several players coming out of redshirt, and it’s clear that the depth chart puzzle will remain murky for a while.

 “Everybody’s fighting,” Heacock said. “Jacob Ellis is fighting in there for reps and special teams and doing a great job. Kooper Ebel, a young kid who came in, has done a great job at the WILL (linebacker) spot. At MIKE linebacker, Jack Sadowsky, Zach Lovett, we’ve had Jacob Imming in there. Caleb Bacon in there. There’s three or four guys at all of those positions fighting for spots.”

 So what’s typically a veteran unit for the Cyclones will be filled with fresh faces this fall. And that, as Heacock noted, could be “a good thing,” as long as the internal competition fuels sound and productive play against external foes.

 “It’s been going good so far,” said Vaughn, who led ISU with 71 tackles last season. “A lot of learning lessons and everybody’s working hard.” 

 Few, if any have worked harder than Sadowsky. The true freshman from Batavia, Ill., has been the talk of Iowa State’s linebackers room since spring ball, but it’s unlikely reporters will get to talk to him this season. That’s because Cyclone head coach Matt Campbell typically shields true freshmen from media exposure, so Sadowsky’s game, as well as his 6-2, 245-pound frame, will do all the talking for him. For now, anyway.

 “A guy that had an incredible spring and was running with the ones by the end of spring practice at MIKE linebacker,” Campbell said. “A guy that’s physically really talented and he can do a lot of really special things.”

 “Can” doesn’t always translate into “will,” but both Campbell and Heacock are convinced this mostly young linebackers group can continue to be a strength for ISU’s almost always stingy defense. That starts with Vaughn — the one guy on the depth chart whose spot is set in Sharpie.

“There’s not really a depth chart other than Gerry Vaughn because of who he is and what he’s done here for us,” Heacock said.