Depth becoming a strength for Iowa State linebackers, offensive line

Iowa State running back Breece Hall, right, and offensive lineman Darrell Simmons Jr. (55) celebrate a touchdown during the second half against Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, on Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Matt Belinson

Experience is found just about everywhere for Iowa State on its 2021 roster. And with that experience comes plenty of able bodies at offensive line and linebacker, ready to seize their moment with plenty games under their belt.

As fall camp winds down and the weeks get closer to Sept. 4 against Northern Iowa, Iowa State linebackers and offensive line coaches and their players spoke to the media to give their assessment of how competition is prevalent in both rooms so far.

‘It’s competition everyday’

When you return 19 starters from a 9-3 team, with multiple preseason All-Americans and All-Big 12 players among them, starting jobs and their backups might seem like a foregone conclusion. But both offensive line and linebacker positions and their two-deep are not set in stone — not by a long shot.

Darrell Simmons knows that experience first hand, after not playing his freshman season on the offensive line for the Cyclones, only to be thrust into the pressure of game action and started 11 games at right guard in 2020. Opportunities can be given and taken away in an instant.

“Everybody is working hard, getting to it,” Simmons said Tuesday. “It’s competition everyday, obviously. No one’s really settled. There’s always somebody pushing somebody.”

Simmons was one of many offensive lineman who got thrown into the mix thanks to injuries across the board in the early stages of 2020. The 6-foot-3, 315 pound redshirt sophomore is confident in his abilities and knows that coaches will work to put the best guys on the field at all times.

Over on the defensive side, senior linebacker Jake Hummel returns as a starter in one of the most experienced linebacker core in the Big 12. Hummel started all 12 games last year, earning honorable mention All-Big 12. He finished second on the team with 77 tackles and 16th in the Big 12 in tackles per game (6.4).

Hummel has watched the depth behind him grow in his four years at Iowa State, and said it has only made him a better player because of it. The possibility of someone behind him on the depth chart earning more playing time in his place is real and Hummel has felt him and other returners be pushed every day.

“There’s a huge advantage for me, Mike [Rose] and OV [O’Rien Vance] to be back with each other just cause I think we communicate really well and really play off each other really well,” Hummel said. “But I give a lot of credit to those twos and threes behind us because at my position, we have three guys that I think can fill in for a game and we’d be fine.”

“Kendell Jackson is pushing [Dae’Shawn Davis] and [Dae’Shawn’s] pushing me.”

Hummel forced a fumble and recorded six tackles in the Playstation Fiesta Bowl vs Oregon, a long way from his beginnings as a member of the special teams unit in 2017.

But now that experience is being given to underclassmen who will have their chances to climb up the depth chart, a welcomed sight for a veteran like Hummel.

“Right when [Dae’Shawn] Davis came in I knew he was going to be a talented player and he’s some guy that’s going to push me to be better,” Hummel said. “And that’s what he did. He definitely came in and made great strides and I knew I had to step my game up and prove to Coach Veidt and Coach Campbell that I’m still the No.1 guy here.”

Two-deep is strong as its ever been

Between the two position groups, there are a total of 16 players who have played in at least two games since 2020. It’s that experience that stands out to Iowa State offensive line coach Jeff Myers on the transition the offensive line has became position coach in 2018.

“I think that we’ll roll out this season will be the most experience that we’ve had not only in terms of depth, but you actually have guys in that two-deep or in that second group that might not be starting a game but will certainly be playing a lot of football for us and have played in games,” Myers said.

When he first entered his coaching role, Myers and other position coaches went through film of the 2017 and 2018 seasons to find out what was the issues that were holding the unit back. What did he find? For one, there were valuable pieces in place that needed better development on their side. Myers said young freshman like Julian Good-Jones and Bryce Meeker were put into the mix early same as Remsburg and Simmons after players left the program.

There was a lack of culture built around the young players like Meeker and Good-Jones to facilitate their growth. But as the 2021 season approaches, the difference in the quality and quantity of the depth chart is night and day for Myers.

“Have we had talented guys before? Sure. Have we always had the work ethic and the leadership in that room? No, we haven’t. And I think that’s what we have built now,” Myers said of the offensive line. “It’s a tight-knit unit and the leaders in the room are not only leaders of the offensive line but are leaders on the team.”

The same can be said for the linebackers, with position coach Tyson Veidt when it comes to his level of confidence in the depth of his room. But unlike the work in progress that has been needed on the offensive line, Vedit has coached some of the best linebackers in program history since he took over in 2016.

Before Mike Rose would go on to win Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, Veidt has watched the likes of Willie Harvey, Marcel Spears Jr and Joel Lanning grow into their own.

His group is in a unique position of losing all three starters after this season, with Rose, Hummel and Vance all being seniors. That’s why having valuable names to turn to during this season will be even more important.

“I think we’ve done, as a defensive staff and Coach Campbell’s philosophy, is to play as many guys as we can that are ready. I think hopefully we’ve got to soften that blow [of losing all three starters after 2021] by this time next year,” Veidt said.

Aric Horne, Cole Pedersen, Gerry Vaughn, Dae’Shawn Davis and Kendell Jackson have stood out to Hummel and Veidt during the spring and the entirety of fall camp.

With both position groups playing such vital roles in order for the Cyclones’ to reach their 2021 goals, both coaches stressed that having trust two or three guys deep is never a bad thing.

“Our two-deep is really, really strong,” Myers said. “Like I said, there’s a lot of guys in that two-deep that have played for us. Whether they’re going to be the group that’s starting and walking out in the first game or not, we have guys that are not only ready to play but have played.”