Meeks Has Next

Out of a pool of quality contenders, it's Alton Meeks who's first on the depth chart at middle linebacker. He's come a long way

Seventy-seven seconds into his first interview at Iowa State since Signing Day of 2013, when he was a short-haired early-enrollee, Alton Meeks delivered the money quote.

"Not many people want a 240-pound quarterback anyway, so I figured I might as well just go play linebacker," Meeks said Sunday at Media Days. "Not everyone can be Joel Lanning, I guess."

Iowa State has a few former high school quarterbacks on the other side of the ball, like Meeks and Luke Knott. There remains a crazed obsession among a faction of the fan base of turning Lanning, the 233-pound redshirt freshman quarterback, into a linebacker, but that says more about this group of Iowa State fans — which perhaps just wants to move on from Lanning before he has a chance to break their hearts, as they've been recently accustomed to with QBs — than Lanning, who's got a bazooka arm to go with that gut.

So how'd the precocious Meeks, with hair like A.J. Klein, end up as Iowa State's starting middle linebacker? After moving from Iowa City to Orlando, Meeks was a dual-threat quarterback for Dr. Phillips High School. Cincinnati offered him to play quarterback and Meeks committed. Schools like Iowa State, UConn, Michigan State, Minnesota, NC State and UCF gave him the chance to play on defense, where Meeks moonlighted during his high school career whenever the team needed a stop.

"He was killing people," ISU defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said Sunday, thinking back to Meeks' tape.

Meeks missed the summer circuit before his senior year with a shoulder injury. Then he broke his leg the second game of the season.

As Meeks told in December of 2012, it was, "a sign. Maybe God was saying, 'Go play linebacker.'"

Now he's here, holding onto the starting job despite the best efforts of acclaimed JUCO transfer Jordan Harris and sophomore Kane Seeley. Less than 20 days to go until the opener against North Dakota State, Meeks is the favorite to trot out there as the guy with first crack at replacing Jeremiah George and his conference-leading 11.08 tackles per game.

But there's a lot of practice time left. Maybe Harris turns it on, or Knott shows he's 100 percent and pushes Jevohn Miller from weakside backer to the middle.

It's not like Meeks is turning the world on fire. Not yet, at least. At 6-foot-3, 244 pounds, he's got the frame to be a great defensive stalwart, and he's got youth on his side — the Cyclones can let Meeks take his lumps this season and by the time he's a senior in 2017, he's a star.

A few things, though. Meeks isn't afraid of contact. The contrary: In high school, he thrived on seek-and-destroy spot missions. He's just not very good at being an instigator on a play-by-play basis.

"Be attacking," Burnham said. "When you play defense, you've got to be that way every snap."

"At first it was really difficult," Meeks said. "I don't think I was very good at all when I first got here. I was bad, in fact. I hadn't done it. The drills were awkward. But I spent a lot of time out there."

George, now with the New York Jets, took time to work with Meeks last year on the finer points of middle-linebacking, going over plays in the meeting room and doing extra drills after practice. It took a few years of college ball for the game to click for George, who didn't really take off until Klein and Jake Knott were off to the NFL, and he encouraged Meeks to stay patient and to soak up whatever Burnham had to say.

"He's been a coach for a long time," Meeks said. "He obviously knows what he's doing."

Per, Burnham's first collegiate coaching job was in 1971, when he was charged with manning the offensive line for the North Alabama Lions. The East Tennessee State Buccaneers came next, then the Richmond Spiders, then the Lamar Cardinals, and then with the Arizona Outlaws of the USFL in 1983. Acclaim at Florida State followed — Burnham went to Derrick Brooks' NFL Hall of Fame induction the other week — and, two stops later, Burnham's in his sixth year in Ames, a few more NFL protégées to his name.

The Cyclones' prognosis can vary each offseason, but it's Burnham's linebackers who're usually the constant. That's different heading into 2014, with question marks at all three spots. Is Meeks too young? Has Jevohn Miller really improved? Is Knott OK? What the heck's going on with Jared Brackens?

But as Meeks reminds, Burnham knows what he's doing. And out of a pool of quality candidates to replace George in the middle, it's the 20-year-old Meeks who's next in line.

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