Matt Campbell knew it would happen. Knew Joel Lanning would set the college football world on fire this year. Knew he'd become the player everyone was talking about.
As he stood in the bowels of the Ford Center at The Star in Dallas in July, the second-year Iowa State coach didn't hesitate for even a second as he told me what to expect. "At some point this season," he said. "Joel will be the story of college football."
And now, here we are.
This past Saturday, the college football world caught up with Campbell and saw what he knew we'd see all the way back then. In a critical game for a team and its teetering season, Lanning played—get this—middle linebacker and quarterback, and led Iowa State to the biggest upset of the season, 38-31 over third-ranked Oklahoma.
Lanning had nine carries for 35 yards and a few crucial first-down runs, completed 2 of 3 passes for 25 yards to keep the OU defense honest, and also had eight tackles and recovered a fumble. In all, he played a grand total of 78 snaps (57 on defense, 13 on offense and eight on special teams).
He captured the spotlight of the weekend, and he might be the story of the year.
But like most dream scenarios that finally come to fruition, this one began long before Saturday night, when social media mavens suddenly started a Joel-Lanning-for-Heisman campaign.
It began at the lowest point of Lanning's college career, a day after last season came to a close for the Cyclones, with Campbell doing something those in his profession rarely do: He admitted he blew it.
First, he told Lanning, then his staff, too.
"Bad coaching," Campbell recalls as his assessment of what went wrong. "We didn't play Joel Lanning enough—and that's my fault."
It was a cold December morning in Ames, Iowa, when Campbell called Lanning and apologized for not playing him at quarterback in the season-ending loss to West Virginia. The Cyclones had officially moved on from Lanning's dual-threat ability, focusing the future of the program on the strong arm of pro-style quarterback Jacob Park.
It's not that Lanning wasn't taking snaps at quarterback. It's that Lanning—the best player on the roster—wasn't even on the field.
So where do you go from there?
When he first arrived at Iowa State and saw Lanning in the spring of 2016, Campbell remembers joking with one of his assistants that Lanning "played quarterback like he's playing mike linebacker."
And then it hit him: Why not ask Lanning—the most respected player on his team and the one player everyone gravitates toward—to move to defense and play the most important position on that side of the ball?
Forget that Lanning hadn't played defense since he was in eighth grade, or that middle linebacker has a steep learning curve. This would not only get him on the field; it could change his life.
Lanning's response to the Campbell's wild plan to save his senior season? "I'll do whatever you want," he said.
But like everything else in Lanning's world, nothing happened without considerable effort. As they say in Iowa: It isn't the farm that makes the farmer, it's the hard work and character.
Making the move included daily game-tape sessions and working with coaches and teammates on the intricacies of the position. It was learning to recognize subtle tells from the offense, like the way a lineman positions his hands as a dead giveaway for pass-blocking.
It was learning terminology, understanding and setting fronts and coverages and every blitz package. Lanning was still playing quarterback—just on the other side of the ball.
Then came reality: The overload of information was manageable. The tough part was facing 300-pound linemen from every angle.
"I'm not going to lie, the best part of the transition was being the guy doing the hitting, not the guy getting hit," Lanning says. "And yet, that still was a bit of a transition. I woke up after our first full day of pads in the spring and everything on my body hurt. I hurt in places I didn't know I could."
For four years, Iowa State did everything it could in practice to protect Lanning from absorbing hits. Now, the hits were coming from everywhere on the field, from every player on offense. His feet got stepped on, and his hands were caught between pads and in facemasks.
Two pulling linemen road-graded him once, and he got crack-back blocked by a wideout. His fingers were jammed, his eyes were poked and he woke up one morning, lifting his face from a splash of cold water, and couldn't recognize the guy looking back.
"I remember looking in the mirror, thinking, how did I get that bruise there?" Lanning says. "After the first couple of weeks, I was dying. My shoulders were all banged up, and my body was just aching."
The mental transition, meanwhile, only compounded the physical problems. He tried to play the position too much like a quarterback and ended up overthinking every situation and couldn't react quickly enough to make a play.
Finally, Iowa State graduate assistant Kenny McClendon—who played four years on the defensive line at Central Michigan—gave Lanning the best advice of all: "Find the ball, tackle the ball."
"I can't even imagine doing what he's doing," says Iowa star linebacker Josey Jewell. "You can't just walk in and play this position. There are things you only learn from being out there, getting [repetitions] and doing it. There's nothing easy about doing what he's doing."
It's not like we should be surprised. Lanning was all-state in three sports in high school (football, wrestling and baseball) and also participated in a fourth (track). In this age of players zeroing in on one sport early in life, Lanning never gave any sport exclusivity—and thrived in all of them.
When football was over, he moved to wrestling. When wrestling finished, he left for track and field. When he was finished with track, he went to baseball.
Just how good an athlete is Lanning? Wrestling—the most important, all-identifying sport for boys growing up in Iowa—was really a way to stay in shape. Yet he still finished third in the state tournament as a senior in one of the toughest divisions in the sport (220 pounds).
In Iowa, kids begin wrestling as early as five years old, train their entire lives and consider it a crowning achievement to reach the state tournament. As an afterhtought, Lanning finished third.
Could Lanning have wrestled as an Olympian if he trained every day?
"I don't know, maybe," he says. "I never really put that much thought into it."
Young athletes all over the state of Iowa just shuddered.
"There are guys who put everything they have into wrestling, and he goes out there and competes just to compete," says Iowa State wideout Allen Lazard, who grew up in Urbandale, Iowa, where the local high school won its only state wrestling title in 1996—and the town nearly shut down that night. "That's the kind of athlete we're talking about. Changing positions is nothing for him. I would've been more surprised if he had told the coaches no, he didn't want to do it."
Three months ago, after watching Lanning play all 15 spring practices at middle linebacker, Campbell had seen enough to say it'd be the story of college football.
And here we are: At Iowa State's lowest point of the season, without Park (he took an absence from the team for personal reasons), with a walk-on starting at quarterback and with Lanning playing iron-man football in a huge upset of Oklahoma.
On Tuesday, when it became apparent that Park would not play against Oklahoma, Campbell called Lanning into his office again and told him to make sure he overhydrated during the week. "Why?" Lanning asked.
"Because we need you to play quarterback this week, too," Campbell said.
"Same thing, same response," Campbell says. "Whatever you want."
He paused for a moment and remembered that first day of spring practice earlier this year.
"After one practice, and at the end of it, I remember thinking, this guy is going to have an opportunity to play in the NFL at linebacker," Campbell says.
"He absolutely will," one NFL scout tells Bleacher Report. "You'll have a year of game tape, he'll have individual workouts and he'll nail the interview. Someone will take him, and he will play in this league."
"These are the type of players you want on a roster, those glue guys," another NFL scout says. "He knows what he's doing out there, and he can play [middle linebacker]. He absolutely can. But he also has that charismatic intangible of working because he wants to work and be better—not because he has to. With some players these days, that's about as rare as it gets."
And that might be the best thing about this story: It's only going to get better.
Matt Hayes covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MattHayesCFB.