AMES — Levi Peters likes to wear camo. While enjoying some of his favorite off-the-field pursuits, it’s imperative to blend in to the surroundings, so his quarry won’t see him coming.
On the field the former walk-on linebacker from itty bitty Gilmore City stands out. He strives for icicles to form in his bushy beard. He makes hits that become Vine videos. He plays as if he’s engaged in a grown-up version of recess and the unbridled joy with which he approaches the game is impossible to conceal.
Simply put: Levi is Levi. “Crazy,” as defensive coordinator Wally Burnham once summarized and punctuated with a belly laugh. “The leader of the defense,” Burnham says now with a straight face.
“I just mentally try to push myself every day, whether I’m in a special teams role this year or I end up being a starter, it’s not going to change,” said Peters, a 5-foot-11, 213-pound junior who aims to make his first career start at WILL linebacker this fall. “I’m still working to be the best I can be every day. My ultimate goal is to be out there and be a starter and I would love to play defense for Iowa State. That’s my goal and that’s what I’m working for every day, so every time we strap it up I try to bring it.”
Oh, he brings it. So much sometimes that it leads to being carted off the field. That’s what happened in week two last season. Peters took off like a shot in punt coverage against No. 20 Kansas State, tore his Achilles tendon, and … kept going.
“(He) battled a defender 15 yards on an Achilles tendon rupture and then threw him off him to help try to get involved in the play,” Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads said at the time. “That’s courage and toughness.”
Those bedrock qualities have helped Peters cement his role as “the leader” on defense despite never yet starting a game at linebacker.
He’s being pushed by two-year starter Luke Knott, whose canniness for the game would seem a perfect complement to Peters’s penchant for operating like a human popcorn machine.
“Good competition and another spot where you’ll see both of them on the field,” Rhoads said.
Knott’s recovering from a series of hip surgeries and subsequent painful complications. At one point, it appeared his football career was over. He, like Peters, has something to prove.
“You know, he’s such a smart kid,” Burnham said of Knott. “That’s the thing about him, too. So if he continues the next two weeks to improve physically — and there’s not anything wrong with him, I think he’s just been stiff. He’s had to get used to that pounding, every day for 20 straight practices.”
The Peters-Knott competition in many ways exemplifies what’s going on throughout a brand new defense.
Jordan Harris is ahead of Kane Seeley at the MIKE linebacker spot, but Rhoads said they both will play.
The Cyclones will not only rotate players on the defensive line, but even in the seasoned secondary.
It’s all about options — including the possibility of more 3-4 packages — and the mix-and-match opportunities have emerged because there’s no reluctance to shift, change, or alter an individual’s plans for the greater good of the team.
Peters’ attitude has had a lot to do with that.
“He’s the leader,” Burnham reiterated. “They’re going to listen to what he says and follow him because they know that he’s going to lay it out there. Whatever it takes, he’s willing to do it for this football team, Not for himself, but for the football team. He’s always encouraging, always leading, always trying to pump them up. And it’s not easy to go through 20 straight days of practice. But he’s been there the same every day. So, yeah, he’s the guy.”
An interesting guy. A hungry guy. And yes, still a “crazy” guy at times — in a good way.
“There’s no room to be complacent,” Peters said. “You go out there every day and battle for the spot and, yeah, you appreciate these opportunities because you don’t know when you’re going to go down, you don’t know when you’re going to have an injury. You just take advantage of every second you get out there.”