Joel Lanning came to Iowa State to play quarterback.
He'd earned it. After taking over the starting quarterback job at Ankeny (Iowa) High School as a freshman, Lanning went on to become a first-team All-State selection. In 2013, ESPN ranked him as the second-best prospect in the state. He committed to Iowa State with the expectation he'd soon become the team's starting quarterback.
Lanning took over as the team's QB1 midway through his redshirt sophomore season. He proved to be an effective dual-threat quarterback (he once rushed for 130 yards in a game against Oklahoma State), yet the team kept losing. Midway through Lanning's redshirt junior season, he was benched in favor of a more traditional pocket passing attack. As ISU head coach Matt Campbell watched his team get blown out by West Virginia in their final game of the 2016 season, he couldn't believe Lanning was riding the pine.
"Our program is not good enough where one of our best players is not touching the field," Campbell reportedly told his offensive staff midway through the game. Lanning was a magnetic leader and a tremendous all-around athlete. He was a four-sport star in high school, running track, wrestling and playing baseball in addition to football. He was an all-state selection in every sport but track. He also happened to be tough as nails. Eventually, it dawned on Campbell—Lanning would be the team's new middle linebacker. With senior Kane Seeley, who tied for the team lead in tackles in 2016, set to graduate, there was a natural void on the depth chart. But would Lanning really go for it?
"I (told coach), 'Sure, why not? I'll do anything to help the team," Lanning told Sports Illustrated. It only took one spring practice for Campbell to realize he was onto something. Though Lanning barely knew how to get into a stance, the framework for a great linebacker was there. He was athletic, tough, smart and instinctive. "After one practice...I remember thinking, this guy is going to have an opportunity to play in the NFL at linebacker," Campbell told Bleacher Report.
Lanning devoured hundreds of hours of linebacker film, and the coaching staff brought him along slowly. Gradually, he began to wrap his head around the position that's frequently referred to as "the quarterback of the defense." He packed on muscle mass to better handle the non-stop assault his body would endure (he now measures in at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds) and he honed his conditioning to near-superhuman levels.
Fast forward to now and Lanning is a dominant force on a Cyclones' defense that has allowed just 18.8 points per game. His 87 total tackles rank sixth in the nation, and he's also notched 6.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception. Lanning, a team captain, still occasionally takes snaps on offense (mostly as a rusher). His fantastic play and selfless attitude have made him the beating heart of a surprising 6-2 Iowa State team who's upset the likes of Oklahoma and TCU. Lanning credits much of the seamless position change to his wrestling background, which helped him build extraordinary amounts of physical and mental toughness.
And to think, none of this would've been possible if Lanning hadn't been willing to do what was best for the team. "When you're the starting quarterback and you lose your job, 90 percent of those guys transfer somewhere else," Campbell told ESPN. "There are a lot of good players in college football, but I don't know if there's someone that does more for their team (than Joel)."
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