Iowa State’s depth at linebacker critical to its success

Redshirt sophomore Aric Horne covers Oklahoma State receiver Tay Martin on Oct. 23.

Matt Belinson

If Mike Rose had his way, he’d play every snap for Iowa State on a given Saturday.

But the All-American linebacker and reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year understands it’s about the long haul.

November is here, and comes with three more guaranteed games that the Cyclones must win to properly seize its chances of returning to the Big 12 Championship. They need their best playing at their best, not taking unnecessary risks.

And when it gets this late in the season, injuries and bumps and bruises become par for the course. And it’s where a team’s respective depth matters the most. 

Gerry Vaughn, Aric Horne and Kendell Jackson have shown their worth and will be leaned on even more in the home stretch in the Iowa State linebacker depth chart going forward.

“If I wanted to and if we wanted to, I could probably play every snap. But is it smart for the long haul? I don’t think so, that’s our approach right now,” Rose said.

Rose knows good linebacker play when he sees it, and watching the rest of the unsung names step up in his absences or O’Rien Vance’s absence has been great to see.

“Aric, he’s been killing it dude,” Rose said. “He’s doing a good job. I’m super proud of him. And it’s big for guys like that to get a feel. There’s a lot of people on our team right now who haven’t had opportunities like that and he’s done a good job with it.”

Rose played close to 34 snaps on Saturday vs Texas after not playing against West Virginia the week prior with a rotator cuff injury. But Horne came in and gave the Cyclones close to 27 good snaps in the 30-7 win for the Cyclones.

But how did Horne, Jackson and Vaughn make their way onto the field and earn the trust of Rose and coaching staff alike? The answer is special teams.

Jackson, Horne and Vaughn have all played on special teams prior to the 2021 season, with Vaughn and Horne getting a majority of those reps in the reserve unit. 

Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell has watched his program shift to understanding that special teams aren’t a demotion. They’re essential. And it’s also been the quickest way to find yourself on the field.

“Depth is huge, and I think those three in particular, boy, they’ve been great additions to where I think they were before the season started to where they are right now,” Campbell said.

Campbell said his players aren’t naive about the importance of special teams. More times than they’d like, the special teams unit has been a weakness during the last three seasons. And when the margins are so small at a place like Iowa State, starting your journey on special teams is big-time stuff.

The good, the bad and the ugly have defined Iowa State’s reserve play over the years, but without stability growing on special teams to allow Horne or Jackson to flourish, Iowa State would’ve had a harder time finding valuable back-ups at linebacker.

And they’re happy they did.

“I think those guys have been critical to our success,” Campbell said of Iowa State’s reserve linebackers. “You’ve seen in it in critical moments, those guys step up and make big plays.”

Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has been with all three reserve linebackers over the last three seasons, but it’s been the work they’ve done on special teams that’s given him confidence to put them on the field.

Their paths to the field remind him of Jake Hummel, Iowa State’s third starting linebacker next to Vance and Rose. Hummel took over the starting job in 2020 after two seasons on special teams. It takes time, but Heacock has watched them form into rocks in the defensive unit. And like Campbell, he believes their play is critical to what Iowa State can do going forward.

“Their plays has been critical. It’s allowed our other guys to get a breath of air at times and I think the play of those guys moving forward will be even more critical,” Heacock said.

“They’ve all earned the right to be out there and they’re taking advantage of it.”