AMES, Iowa — Marcel Spears remembers his first start, a night game at Jack Trice Stadium against Northern Iowa during his redshirt sophomore season. He had played some on special teams the previous year, but that night under the lights was his first extensive playing time at linebacker.
It was the dawn of an eight-win season for Iowa State and Spears’ career as a starting linebacker. He was anxious, excited, and described it as an “amazing feeling.”
Now a senior, Spears has started each game since then, a streak of 31 straight starts that ranks as the longest on the ISU defense. He also has the most tackles for the Cyclones since the beginning of the 2017 season with 213.
But even after all of those starts and all those tackles, he has that feeling of anticipation when he takes the field.
“I still get butterflies every time I touch the field. Just because, when you love the game so much, you’re always going to have some type of emotion and just always anxious,” Spears said. ”(It’s) like I wanna play, we gotta hurry up and get to Saturday-type feeling.”
Spears has been a key contributor for ISU in each of the past three seasons, and he’s now one of five ISU captains.
Coach Matt Campbell said Spears’ success has stemmed from the leap he made from a freshman on special teams to a sophomore starting on defense and registering 107 tackles, the second most on the team that season behind senior Joel Lanning.
“It would go back to his growth from where he was as a redshirt freshman in this program to who he is today,” Campbell said. “It’s growing and understanding his own process to become the best version of Marcel Spears he can be, and one of the things I love about him is he’s been a great listener. He’s been a great self-evaluator.”
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The ISU linebackers have been a highlight this season, with sophomores Mike Rose and O’Rien Vance playing well alongside the veteran Spears. Vance has the most sacks (6.5) of any player in the Big 12 and any linebacker in the country, and Rose has picked up where he left off from an excellent freshman season.
″(Spears has) an ability to reach back and bring somebody with him, and maybe as good as anybody as I’ve seen in bringing somebody else with him,” Campbell said. “He’s a pretty special guy, and he’s got that ability to have great relationships with everybody in our program.”
ISU sophomore defensive end Zach Petersen said Spears is not afraid to say what he wants and is bluntly honest with the defense.
“He’s just a great vocal leader with what’s going on, which is great as a linebacker because they’re almost like the quarterback of the defense,” Petersen said.
Spears has made big plays during his career — including two pick-sixes against Texas Tech, one in each of the past two seasons — but he’s been most notable for his consistent play. He’s not perfect, he admitted, and said that he stills sees his errors on film all the time; what’s changed, however, is how he reacts to those miscues.
“When I was younger, I would see those mistakes, and I would try to say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad,’ now I’m like, ‘That can’t happen again, because if I do it again, it might hurt my team next time,’” he said.
Two years ago, Lanning made headlines when he switched from quarterback to linebacker, and a year ago it was Rose who emerged as a key player for the Cyclones.
This season, it’s been Vance who has caused a stir. But through each of the past three years, Spears has been there each game, starting and playing consistently well.
“It’s just basically understanding you’re not playing for yourself,” he said. “You’re playing for your teammates, so you can’t be selfish with not doing your job.”