Breaking down the Iowa State football team: Linebackers

UNI quarterback Aaron Bailey is brought down by ISU’s Reggen Northrup during the game Sept. 3. The Panthers would go on to defeat the Cyclones 25-20. 

Aaron Marner

Iowa State linebacker corps may be the strangest position group on the roster in 2017.

On one hand, the Cyclones don’t lose much production at linebacker from the 2016 squad. On the other hand, Iowa State’s returning linebackers don’t have much experience.

The two main losses from last season are Kane Seeley and Brian Mills.

After a junior season in which he recorded 23 total tackles in 12 games, Seeley emerged as a senior by racking up 78 tackles, which tied for the highest total on the team. His production could be tough to replace.

Mills recorded 112 tackles in three seasons at Iowa State, including 45 last season.

Because only two linebackers are leaving from last year’s squad, there are a couple returning linebackers with notable experience. Willie Harvey and Reggan Northrup both got extended playing time last season and will be asked to step into bigger roles in 2017.

Northrup and Harvey, both redshirt juniors, played well a season ago. Northrup recorded 50 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss. Harvey was named honorable mention All-Big 12 after tying for a team-high 78 tackles and forcing two fumbles.

But two linebackers won’t be enough. To fill the gaps, Iowa State has taken some radical steps. Because of Jacob Park’s success at quarterback last season, former quarterback Joel Lanning has been making the transition from offense to defense during the offseason and is currently the No. 1 MIKE linebacker.

Lanning, a redshirt senior, hasn’t played linebacker since eighth grade. However, at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Lanning has the size to play linebacker. He was known for being physical as a running quarterback, too, so the adjustment might not be as tough as it looks at first glance.

That begs an interesting question: is Lanning being moved to linebacker because he’s so talented that the coaching staff needed to find a place for him on the field, or is Lanning being moved to linebacker because the linebacker corps is that depleted?

In reality, it’s probably a little bit of both. Lanning is built like a linebacker, and his physical strength might be better suited for a more physical position. On the other hand, it’s only natural for fans to be concerned that players like Bobby McMillen, Tymar Sutton and others haven’t been asked to step into a starting linebacker role instead of someone who hasn’t played the position in eight years.

The outlook for 2017

The pre-fall camp depth chart had Lanning, Harvey and redshirt sophomore Marcel Spears Jr. as the starting linebackers. That means Harvey, who has 17 career starts, is the only starting linebacker with a previous career start at that position at the college level.

Since Iowa State will often play with five or more defensive backs on the field against Big 12 opponents, linebackers aren’t always the most important unit on the defense. The big question is Lanning.

If Lanning can step up and be a reliable force at linebacker, Iowa State’s linebacker corps will be fine. If nobody is able to help Harvey plug holes and make tackles against the run game, the Cyclone defense could be in for a long season.