The plan for Iowa State’s Joel Lanning this year was supposed to be for him to serve as the Cyclones’ middle linebacker. Few expected him to do what few players above the high school level ever do: regularly play on both sides of the football during the same game.
But that’s exactly what he did in Iowa State’s upset win over Oklahoma, as the Cyclones turned to him as their quarterback as well as their middle linebacker. With regular starting quarterback Jacob Park out indefinitely because of personal reasons, Lanning might be the Cyclones’ top option at both quarterback and linebacker for the foreseeable future…and Cyclones fans are loving his versatile skill set.
Here are five things you need to know about Iowa State’s two-way star.
1. He’s New to Playing Linebacker
Given Lanning’s role as the middle linebacker of the Cyclones’ defense, you might expect that he played the position in practice, or at least have dabbled in it during his high school days. But prior to this season as a fifth-year senior, Lanning hadn’t actually played linebacker since middle school.
But with Park as the quarterback of the future, Iowa State coach Matt Campbell was looking for a way that he could get Lanning on the field more often. He’d thought about making Lanning a running back, but decided that even that wasn’t enough time on the field for one of his team’s best players. Given his size, intelligence and physical mindset, Campbell eventually decided that the perfect solution was to have Lanning play middle linebacker and take charge of the defense.
Five months after Campbell made the decision, Lanning had figured out the defensive side of the football well enough that he was on track to become a starter at middle linebacker. He showed just how far he’d come when he returned an interception for a touchdown in the spring game, showing he could do it in a game setting as easily as practice.
2. He Was a State Champion Quarterback in High School
In four years at Ankeny High School, Lanning proved to be one of the top quarterbacks in the Hawkeye State. Over his final two seasons, he tossed 40 touchdowns against just seven interceptions, leading Ankeny to the state semifinals as a junior and completing a perfect season as a senior by beating Xavier High School of Cedar Rapids in the state championship game.
Lanning played quarterback in all four years with the Hawks and rapidly became one of the most feared signal callers in central Iowa. His freshman season was the only one in which he didn’t throw more touchdown passes than interceptions, and his freshman season was also the only one in which Ankeny didn’t make it to at least the state semifinals.
After his success at Ankeny, he made the 27-mile move north up Interstate 35 to Ames, where he proved to be an effective signal caller, even when Park established himself as the starting quarterback in Campbell’s offense. Even though he could have left Iowa State to play somewhere as a graduate transfer, a la Russell Wilson, he never considered leaving the Cyclones — or his family’s cardinal-and-gold bus.
3. He Was Also an All-State Wrestler
Wrestling is huge in Iowa, and Lanning was one of the best in the state’s largest division. As a senior, his efforts earned him a third-place finish at 220 pounds in Class 3A, and he finished the year by being named all-state.
His wrestling background is a large reason why he’s had so much success at middle linebacker. While the mental aspect of playing middle linebacker is most similar to being a quarterback, the physical aspect translates best to the skills of a wrestler. With his experience of wrapping up an opponent in a one-on-one situation and pinning him to the floor, Lanning already possessed the basic skills he needed to make his transition a success.
He credits a lot of his success in and out of athletics to his wrestling coach Dave Ewing, who was a former star wrestler at Iowa State in the 1980s.
4. He Could Become an NFL Draft Prospect
Given his rapid progress as a middle linebacker and his skills on the offensive side of the ball, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Lanning could hear his name called in April’s NFL draft. It’s not uncommon for NFL teams to select a player who played quarterback in college and ask him to switch positions, although few have done it successfully.
Lanning’s case, however, is unlike anyone else’s. Unlike other multi-threat athletes such as Kordell Stewart or Antwaan Randle-El, Lanning has already had the experience of learning a new position before his college career has ended — and playing it successfully.
With such a track record of learning a completely new position, it’s far from a stretch to think an NFL team might use a late pick on him in hopes of adapting his skill set and malleability to their own needs next year.
5. He’s an Avid New York Yankees Fan
Iowa might be the most diverse state in the nation for baseball fans, as it’s the only state that falls entirely within the blackout territory of six different MLB teams (Cubs, White Sox, Twins, Brewers, Cardinals and Royals). It also features minor league teams in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Burlington, Clinton and the Quad-Cities, giving Iowans 10 different teams to choose that can claim some tie to the Hawkeye State.
Lanning picked none of them, instead becoming a fan of the New York Yankees. Despite being a star in football and wrestling, he chose Yankees great Derek Jeter as his sports idol (he also played baseball for Ankeny) and hasn’t been shy about showing his support for the Bronx Bombers on his social media page.
The baseball playoff schedule actually worked perfectly for him with the Yankees off while he was facing Oklahoma, although he might have missed out on the end of Game 2. Given the results for the Cyclones against the Sooners, missing it was well worth it.