FRISCO. Texas –'Bout this time of year, nearly every year, one of these long-shot guys lands on the Cowboys' expanded 90-man roster, someone you can't help but pull for.
Or someone with a backstory you can't help rooting for.
Remember Patrick Crayton in 2004, no more than a seventh-round pick, a local kid out of somewhere called Northwestern Oklahoma State.
Or L'Damian Washington, the wide receiver from Shreveport, La., who made a name for himself at the University of Missouri, but went undrafted in 2014, breaking his heart because his goal was to support his brothers since mom and dad had both already passed away.
Or Ron Leary, the University of Memphis 2013 undrafted offensive lineman because of what doctors decided was a highly degenerative knee.
There's been undrafted wide receiver Saalim Hakim out of Tarleton State, the brother of former NFL wideout Az-Zahir Hakim, a speedster the Cowboys took a chance on in 2012.
Heck, we can even add one La'el Collins to that list, the projected first-round pick from LSU in 2015 who fell through seven rounds of the draft once the league learned authorities in Baton Rouge, La., wanted to question him during the investigation of his former girlfriend's murder.
Well, got another one for you this year.
His name in Joel Lanning. Linebacker, Iowa State. He, too, went undrafted, one of the 20 rookie free agents here on Friday for the start of the Cowboys' three-day rookie minicamp, which appears to be closer to college freshman orientation than it did to anything significant about football.
He is 6-1, 238 pounds, listed as a middle linebacker.
Most of you probably haven't heard of him, an all-state player in football, baseball and wrestling from Ankeny, Iowa, a suburb just north of Des Moines. While there as a senior in 2012, won state championships in football and baseball. Spent five years at Iowa State. Started 22 of the final 25 games he played over his final two years.
If you are from Oklahoma, or a fan of the Sooners, you darn well remember this kid, Lanning, Joel. He had two huge hands in downing the then third-ranked team that eventually advanced to the College Football Playoffs, 38-31, in Norman, Okla. Previously, the Cyclones had only beaten the Sooners five times in 81 meetings, and not once in Norman since 1990.
I distinctly remember watching the game, and was greatly confused since I wasn't up on my Cyclone football. Here was this No. 7 making tackles. Eight of them to be exact, sacking Baker Mayfield once and recovering one fumble at the Iowa State 6-yard line, setting up the Cyclones' game-turning 94-yard touchdown drive.
But in the next breath, here was this No. 7 running the ball, a critical 9 yards on fourth down to help set up an Iowa State field goal, trimming the Sooners' lead to 14-3.
And wait a minute, there was No. 7 throwing the ball, tossing a third-down screen pass to running back David Montgomery, then throwing the springing block for a 24-yard gain to set up Iowa State's first touchdown.
What the what?
Is this Lanning a linebacker? A running back? A quarterback?
Listen to his Iowa State offensive coordinator, Tom Manning. You get the idea ol' Joel is just a plain, hard-nosed football player. And a damn good one at that.
"He's meant so much to the team," Manning says during Liberty Bowl week. "I think he's had an effect on everybody in our organization. I think he's been such a refreshing, inspiring kid to our coaching staff, to our young coaches and to all of us.
"I think it's a cliché in football – how important teamis – but he's a guy that had a million opportunities to do different things and Iowa State is really important to him. It's the most important thing to him."
Sound like a Sean Lee starter kit to you? The Cowboys darn well hope so.
Now, here is the backstory that just happens to be the path rarely traveled.
Lanning was an all-state *quarterback *in high school. That's right, quarterback. Finished with 39 all-purpose touchdowns and 3,384 total yards. He was so good his senior year, Ankeny went 14-0 to win the state title.
He then chose Iowa State over Nebraska, and ended up red-shirting in 2013. Played in just one game in 2014.
Then in 2015, playing in 11 games, he started at quarterback the last five, including the 24-0 win over Texas, thus earning the starting job in 2016.
As a dual-threat QB, Lanning ends up passing for 1,290 yards and nine touchdowns while running for 518 yards and 11 touchdowns to lead the team. In fact, in a 66-10 win over Texas Tech, Lanning carried the ball 17 times for 171 yards and five touchdowns.
But in the 2017 offseason, head coach Matt Campbell told Lanning he needed more of a passing quarterback than a running quarterback and that he was wanting to go with Jacob Park and Kyle Kempt as the top two QBs. So, Joel, would you mind moving to linebacker? Middle linebacker? A position he had not played since the eighth grade.
Now most guys, and especially quarterbacks, being asked to make such a move going into their senior year immediately would have asked for their transfer papers. Not Lanning. Sure, coach, whatever will help the team.
"I was kind of, hust all right, let me do what I can to help my team," Lanning said out here on the second day of the three-day minicamp.
Well, I'll be, the guy ends up leading Iowa State with 114 tackles (third in the Big 12), finished second with 11 tackles for losses, had three passes defensed and picked one. But that was not it. The Cyclones still needed him some at quarterback, mostly running the ball out of what was named for him, the Lan-Rampackage, usually on short-yardage, goal-line and fourth-down plays.
Oh, and you know the lyric Put me in coach? He also helped out on special teams.
Now that Oklahoma game. It was reported Park took an undisclosed leave of absence from the team for personal medical reasons. So Campbell went with the senior walk-on Kempt against the Sooners. But late in the week, they called Lanning in to inform him they might need him some at quarterback, too, for that game.
"that whole week was pretty crazy," Lanning admits, getting just a few reps in practice prior to the game.
So Lanning starts at middle linebacker, but with the offense needing a jump start and no previous game snaps at quarterback that season, he enters the game in the second quarter with Iowa State trailing, 14-0. That's when the fourth-down run picked up the first, then driving the Cyclones to the OU 11 for the field goal.
That's when he tossed the screen pass for another first, leading to Iowa State's first touchdown.
Then came the fumble recovery at the 6, and that's when I –half-heartedly paying attention – was like, wait a minute, isn't that the quarterback?
Well, the Cowboys will now hope to put amazing in their bottle. Lanning didn't receive an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine, didn't get drafted. But he's here just the same, one of the 20 undrafted free agents the Cowboys signed. And unless you knew, No. 43 was just another name on the roster – maybe just a camp guy.
But the main thing is, he's here.
And as Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says, "It really doesn't matter where you came from or what you've done to this point, the only thing that matters is what you do now. … We have great examples where free agents have come in and played prominent roles. Just go back to the history of this team. …
"They need to understand that. They need to understand it doesn't matter where they came from, how much their signing bonus was. We're going to look at what they do and give them an opportunity to help our football team."
Yep, he's talking to the Joel Lannings of the world. Just as the Cowboys talked to Miles Austin at one point and Barry Church and Cole Beasley and Dan Bailey, and uh, Tony Romo. We could go on and on, all the way back to the days of Cliff Harris, the safety from tiny Ouachita Baptist.
So keep an eye on Lanning. The Cowboys need depth guys at linebacker. He's begun working on the weakside this weekend, and says, "but they also want me to learn the middle." Plus, you know darn well he'll do whatever they ask on special teams, and treat the opportunity like the job of his life. And tuck this away for safe keeping: The Raiders worked him a little at fullback during his pro day workout.
Says he was on the punt coverage team this past season at Iowa State, then on the kickoff return and punt return teams, too, you know, as a blocker
He's one of those Garrett kind of guys. The head coach probably doesn't know much about Lanning … yet … admitting Friday this rookie orientation benefits the coaches, too, currently having to look up numbers on the roster for names.
But my guess is, by time the first week of training camp is over, Garrett will know who No. 43 is.