AMES, Iowa – The buzz during Iowa State spring football drills surrounded senior Joel Lanning when head coach Matt Campbell announced that the quarterback began taking the majority of his reps at linebacker.
Lanning, who has totaled 14 career starts at QB in his Cyclone career, spent his first four years as a signal-caller.
Preliminary reports from spring practice indicate Lanning is making a smooth transition to the defensive side of the field.
Making a switch from QB to LB isn’t common, but it has been accomplished before.
In fact, not only has it occurred at Iowa State, it was a resounding success. Just ask Derrick Walker, who was converted to a LB in 2000 after playing QB for the Cyclones in 1999.
Walker was glad he made the switch.
“It gave me an opportunity to compete, and that’s all I was really looking for at the time,” Walker said.
A native of Houston, Texas, Walker arrived at Iowa State in 1999 after a stellar two-year career at Blinn Junior College where he passed for nearly 1,000 yards. He was recruited as a QB by former ISU head coach Dan McCarney and his sights were set to win the job when he entered fall camp.
His competition that season was Sage Rosenfels, a junior who saw limited action his first two seasons while backing up Todd Bandhauer.
“It was really tight (the competition for the starting QB),” Walker said. “The coaches evaluated us on a daily basis in fall camp and it was kind of neck and neck all the way up until game week. They (coaching staff) charted everything as far as practice and scrimmages and things of that nature, and they let us know how we did afterward.”
The QB battle went down to the wire. McCarney made the decision to go with Rosenfels just a week prior to the season-opener vs. Indiana State.
Though promised he would still get snaps, Walker was devastated.
“I was told we’d both play regardless, but I didn’t feel okay with it,” Walker remembered. “I ended up being the backup, but I’d still have an opportunity to play.”
Walker served as a backup for Rosenfels in 1999, appearing in five games, completing 9-of-18 passes for 106 yards. The Cyclones showed signs of progress that year, and Rosenfels was a big part of ISU’s improvement.
With Rosenfels securely locked into the starting spot for 2000, Walker was in limbo.
Ever the competitor, Walker desperately wanted to play. His immediate thought was to transfer until he had a meeting with McCarney.
The Cyclone coach didn’t want to give up on him and laid out some options. He mentioned he could switch positions to either wide receiver, tight end, safety or linebacker, noting that there was a spot open at outside linebacker.
Walker was reluctant, but after mulling it over, he thought it just might work.
It was a decision Walker does not regret.
“I was all for it, especially when he (Coach McCarney) told me it was my position to lose,” Walker said. “I had an opportunity to play in my last year and that’s all I really wanted.”
Like Lanning, Walker already had a linebacker build. Lanning is listed at 6-2, 230 pounds and Walker was a rugged 6-2, 235 pounds.
And also similar to Lanning, both didn’t have an aversion to contact. Their styles directing an offense included punishing runs in between the tackles if necessary.
All of this added up to a transition to defense that was much smoother than predicted.
“I felt like I picked it up pretty quick because of my experience playing quarterback,” Walker said. “If you understand football, quarterback is probably the most complex position to pick up just because you’re responsible for knowing so much about the entire offense. I felt more free and able to use my athletic abilities at linebacker. Getting myself physically able to wrestle the linemen, taking those blocks, and tackling the running backs coming out of the backfield was the more challenging part. I was more concerned about the physical attributes of it, as opposed to the mental aspects.”
Heading into the 2000 campaign, expectations were high. There was a quiet confidence within the locker room that this could be a special season, and Walker wanted to be a part of it.
Walker worked hard in fall camp and eventually shocked many by earning the starting nod at outside linebacker for the season-opener against Ohio.
“I wasn’t shocked about starting, because I expected to,” Walker said. “I was more shocked, I guess, being able to physically compete against other competition. Going against teammates compared to going against an opponent, it’s completely different. Once I got that game action and experience, I knew I could do it.”
Walker and his teammates were indeed in the midst of something special. The Cyclones ended the year by tying the school record for wins (9-3), culminating with the school’s first bowl victory with a 37-29 triumph over Pittsburgh in the Insight.com Bowl.
Walker was instrumental of ISU’s success in 2000, starting 11 games and recording 61 tackles, the fourth-best total on the team.
Being a strong contributor on one of ISU’s greatest teams makes Walker proud.
“It was probably one of my most fulfilling accomplishments as a football player,” Walker remembered. “To actually help Iowa State win a bowl game, be a part of it as a starter, it was like a dream come true.”
After his Cyclone career was over, his limited experience at linebacker didn’t deter him from gaining interest from the NFL.
Walker signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles and spent much of the summer in camp with the team.
After getting cut by the Eagles, Walker had offers to compete in other professional leagues. However, he had a wife and young child to support and needed a more stable job.
“I was picked up by the Eagles after the NFL draft in 2001,” said Walker. “I went out to Philly for that summer and was there until the end of June when I got released. I had opportunities to play in the Arena League, but I had kids and a family and needed to make money at the time.”
Walker still follows Cyclone football and knows what Lanning is going through right now.
He has some advice for the Cyclone captain.
“My advice to Joel is to tell him that this could be the start of something big,” Walker added. “I was kind of shocked to get the opportunity to go with the Eagles. He needs to look at it like a new beginning. He might not see it now, but it will open up lot more doors than being a backup quarterback. I think he’s making a right decision for his career. He will have a lot more opportunities if he excels like I did. I just didn’t know it at the time.”