Picture New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick asking quarterback Tom Brady to move into middle linebacker David Harris’ spot.
Try imagining this scenario on any pro or college football team. Most people would think the coach had taken one too many hits on the sideline for even suggesting it.
But Iowa State coach Matt Campbell made the highly unusual request when he asked fifth-year senior quarterback Joel Lanning to consider moving to middle linebacker during the spring.
Lanning hadn’t played linebacker since eighth grade in Ankeny, Iowa. But he looked like he was made to play the position as he brought his physical style of play from quarterback to Iowa State’s defense.
“It’s been a while but it didn’t take long to figure out I can do it,” Lanning said. “I just like it because it’s free. I’m outside the box covering people. I’m inside the box filling holes. It’s a lot more moving around back there, it’s fun. At quarterback you’re stuck in a little area.”
As a dual-threat quarterback, Lanning threw for 1,290 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed for 518 yards and a team-leading 11 scores last season. But Jacob Park took over the starting job during the last month of the season and is back this year.
Campbell saw Lanning’s 6-2, 230-pound frame and thought he could boost an Iowa State defense that needed help after finishing eighth in the Big 12 last season.
“I almost kind of put myself in a GM mentality of, where do I see this guy?” Campbell said. “He’s a phenomenal athlete, maybe one of the best athletes in college football. Where does this guy really fit and where can he help our football program? So he's taken this leadership role and really excelled on the defensive side.”
Campbell was impressed by how quickly Lanning developed at middle linebacker during the spring, especially since he hadn’t played the position in nine years.
He knew Lanning would be physical enough to play middle linebacker, but he was able to pick up all the nuances of the position. By the end of the spring, Lanning looked like a veteran defensive player.
“I probably was taken back a little bit by how much growth he was able to make from practice 1 through 15,” Campbell said. “But Joel always played with a linebacker's mentality at quarterback. But transitioning to tackling and playing in space and doing those things, I think that's been probably his biggest transition, but it's been really fun to watch. I thought by practice 13, 14, 15, boy, he looked like he belonged for sure.”
Playing quarterback for the Cyclones, Lanning developed an understanding of defensive schemes. But it was still a transition once he stepped to the other side of the ball. Now he’ll be the quarterback of the defense at middle linebacker and will be counted on to make calls for the defense.
“Just understanding what to do defensively and play calls was the hardest part,” Lanning said. “I knew I could make a tackle and run with those guys because I can run pretty well. I have confidence in learning the playbook really quickly.”
While tackling comes naturally for Lanning, his biggest learning curve has been pass coverage.
“As Mike linebacker you’re very rarely in man coverage,” Lanning said. “Most of the time you’re covering a back. Every once in a while you have to push the No. 3 receiver and try to reroute him and cover him. The hardest part for me is to try to get receivers off their course a little bit to help the corners.”
While Lanning’s primary job will be at linebacker, there’s still a chance he could shift to quarterback for running situations. With his size, Lanning is a beast on the goal line.
“The plan is quarterback, running back or maybe somewhere else on the offense,” Lanning said. “I want the ball in my hands if I can still. But I have no idea what they’re thinking, so it just kind of depends how the season goes and who we’re playing.”
The Iowa State defenders are glad to have Lanning on their side of the ball and expect him to star at his new position.
“If you watch his highlights as a quarterback, imagine what he can do as a linebacker,” said Iowa State defensive back Brian Peavy. “He’s physical. He’s an athlete. It speaks for itself for a quarterback to switch to linebacker. That just speaks volumes as far as his ability and versatility.”
Peavy even has a bold prediction for Lanning’s final college season.
“Look for him to be on the Heisman watch on the fourth week,” Peavy said. “That’s my prediction. You heard it here first.”