For 14 games over the past two seasons, Iowa State’s Joel Lanning lined up under center as the team’s starting quarterback. But in his senior season in Ames, Iowa, the player who formerly captained the Cyclone offense is now working to halt opposing offenses.
Second-year head coach Matt Campbell called Lanning into his office two weeks prior to the start of spring football and proposed the idea of rotating the former quarterback to inside linebacker for his final season at Iowa State.
“There was really no hesitation,” Lanning said on agreeing to Campbell’s suggestion. “I think he saw my physicality I had when I was running the ball as a quarterback. The deal was, ‘We’ll try you there, and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll put you on the offensive unit somehow.’ Ever since they switched me, I have never looked back.”
Lanning had not played a snap on the defensive side of the ball since he started at linebacker in eighth grade. When the Cyclones’ defense took the field against Northern Iowa in the opener on Sept. 2, Lanning acknowledged he’d have to execute a different role on the field for the first time in about a decade.
“I was actually pretty relaxed — a lot more relaxed than I thought I would be being on the other side of the ball,” Lanning said. “I was used to dictating the game’s speed, so I was used to (offensive) guys and their tempo. I think the biggest difference is conditioning-wise, you have to be in really good shape to play on the defensive side of the ball, and the physicality — taking on the big offensive linemen and fullbacks.”
Lanning fit seamlessly into the heart of the defense and currently ranks second on the team with 26 total tackles. In a 41-14 victory over the Akron in Week Three, Lanning already collected his first interception and sack of his brief defensive career.
“We’ve talked about it, just his growth,” Campbell said. “There’s a guy who’s leading our football program every single day. I couldn’t be prouder of him. I think he’s a guy that’s only going to get better, and he’s a catalyst for everything that we do in our football program.”
After years of slinging the pigskin and running the ball, Lanning experienced several challenges adjusting to the unconventional position change. The senior continues to utilize the incredible vision he refined at the quarterback position to contribute to his defense prowess.
“At quarterback, you’ve gotta see safeties and corners and things like that, and that tells you when to throw the ball,” Lanning said. “On certain plays on defense, I gotta find the place I’m covering or see the pulling guards or the center pulling or see fullbacks. The biggest thing that carried over was getting my eyes right.”
In high school, Lanning earned All-State honors as a wrestler at Ankeny High School in Iowa. The inside linebacker credits the sport for augmenting his physicality — a key attribute he applies when playing the linebacker position.
“Winning the one-on-one battles, you have to have the mentality of going out there and attacking people,” Lanning said. “Mental toughness carries over too from wrestling. Wrestling is one of the hardest sports I’ve ever had to do — getting in shape and going non-stop, so it definitely helped me mentally on the football field.”
The senior team captain now has one of the most unique résumés in college football, possessing statistics ranging from passing and rushing touchdowns to receiving yards and tackles to sacks and interceptions. One thing Lanning has yet to accomplish as a Cyclone is playing in a bowl game. At 2–1, Iowa State appears on track for its first postseason appearance since 2012, but the senior linebacker knows there’s no ceiling on the 2017 Cyclones’ potential.
“We’re not setting our goal to just go 5–7 or 6–6 and go to a bowl game,” Lanning said. “We want to play for a Big 12 Championship and we want to play in a big-time bowl game.”