The Man in the Middle: weighing Iowa State’s mike linebacker options

Senior Mike Warren Jokes around with fellow teammate freshmen O’Rien Vance as he get interviewed by a reporter during 2018 Media Day on Aug. 7. 

Trevor Holbrook

Tune in to a Dallas Cowboys’ preseason game, and you might catch a handful of former Cyclones, including Joel Lanning.

Unfortunately for Iowa State and linebackers coach Tyson Veidt, Lanning won’t be found inside any Iowa State depth charts or at the mike linebacker position on Saturdays this year.

Lanning was somewhat of a wildcard at linebacker last season, but he proved he could anchor the middle of the defense.

Like last season, Iowa State needs another player to fill the void at mike linebacker, but it’s not so clear cut as fall approaches.

“Certainly the main question will be ‘who’s replacing Joel Lanning and who’s playing the middle linebacker spot right now?’” Veidt said. “Up through today we’ve played six different guys at the middle linebacker spot… today it was more narrowed down to three different guys.”

The three players Veidt referred to are O’Rien Vance, Mike Rose and Bobby McMillen. The trio is relatively young with redshirt junior McMillen as the oldest, followed by redshirt freshman Vance and true freshman Rose.

The heavy competion has even been noticed by non-mike linebackers and trickled into their positions too.

“The competition has made, not only me, but the whole entire defense better,” said senior linebacker Reggan Northrup. “I look forward to continuing this competition. Make myself and others around me better.”

Rose is the least experienced, but the Brecksville, Ohio, native has turned some heads throughout the summer.

“The one thing that stood out with Mike, we got a chance to see him live when we went over to play Akron,” Veidt said. “We got a chance to see him play live that night, and I’ve never seen anybody live play that hard every single play and it has carried over to here, too.”

Veidt also pointed out Rose’s ability to play fast and smart with a high football IQ.

On the field, senior linebacker Willie Harvey has picked up on Rose’s impact, too.

“He’s a tough, hard-nosed dude,” Harvey said. “He’s young, but he can play.”

During Iowa State’s scrimmage last weekend, Rose found playing time against the second and third-string units.

Aside from Rose, McMillen battled an injury last season, but the veteran in the group is healthy heading into the season.

“You never know how anybody’s going to react coming back from an injury, but through the spring we knew as he was progressing that he was really ahead of schedule and that’s naturally encouraging,” Veidt said. “He has been a really good player for us on special teams, a guy we’ve counted on to be a four-phase guy on special teams.”

Veidt even mentioned McMillen being in better shape after healing from injury.

The final player of the trio — Vance — has the luxury of another camp under his belt heading into his redshirt freshman season.

“I think he understands what we’re doing better,” Veidt said about Vance. “Naturally, he’s getting more reps, so he’s physically getting more reps that way… there’s still things he needs to work on.”

Veidt referred to Vance as a “big, physical guy,” but Veidt said that Vance has made changes to his body for the better.

There’s a handful of options at mike linebacker, but the starter is far from set.

“If we played tomorrow, I don’t know who we would run out there,” Veidt said. “It would have to be a [Matt Campbell] decision right now, who he felt comfortable with. I don’t know who it would be coming off of where we are right now. So it’s certainly up in the air. It is a fight for who is going to be that first guy.”