CEDAR RAPIDS, Ia. — Maurice Blue wanted to do it. Man, did he want to do it.
Come playoff time, nothing’s off the table. Every scheme, every trick play, every weapon in the arsenal is explored, and Blue — Cedar Rapids Washington’s veteran defensive coordinator — knew he had a young hitter roaming junior varsity fields, a powerful freshman linebacker who had spent much of that 2013 football season terrorizing various sophomore squads.
So with the Warriors set to begin postseason play against Cedar Falls, Blue made his pitch. Forget the age. Forget the lack of varsity exposure.
O’Rien Vance was coming.
“We were going to start him,” Blue said. “I talked to (former Warriors head) coach (Paul) James and was like, ‘I think we should start him, or at least I’m thinking about it.’ And he was like, ‘You sure?’
“I ended up chickening out, but we knew we would play him.”
Still, Blue’s contemplation set the tone. Although Vance narrowly missed the first-team nod in his varsity debut, that October night provided the initial glimpses of a heralded football career that’s only building steam.
Vance has garnered essentially every prep football honor and award Iowa has to offer. That dominance pushed Vance to Iowa State — the end result of a rather straightforward recruitment that didn’t quite match interest with accolades.
But Vance doesn’t mind. He wanted something simple. When he signs with the Cyclones during Wednesday’s National Signing Day festivities, Iowa State will likely remain his only reported offer.
“For me,” said Allen Trieu, Scout.com’s Midwest football recruiting manager, “I think he is — without a doubt — one of the best guys in this Iowa State class.”
Getting there has been a journey.
‘We knew he was going to be a dude’
First, let’s back up to that freshman season.
“He played one freshman game and he was a man playing with a bunch of little kids,” Blue said. “I think it was Kennedy who they were playing, and he just took their quarterback and just drove him into the ground so hard.
“(Paul James) and I were watching. I looked over at him and was like, ‘We better get him out of here before he kills somebody.’ He was just bigger, faster, stronger than everybody else. It wasn’t even fair.
“… We knew he was going to be a dude.”
Vance finished out the rest of the season playing up on the sophomore team until he received the varsity promotion. The Warriors fell, 27-10, to Cedar Falls, but it was more than evident where Washington’s up-and-coming phenom would reside the following year.
“My sophomore year, after the first game and I got all the jitters out,” Vance said, “I just went out, and the coaches were like, ‘You play as hard as you can to help the team.’ So that’s what I did.
“You just get it in your head like, ‘It’s not going to be easy.’ So you might as well just put your full effort into it.”
Vance’s initial varsity production mirrored his freshman season. He racked up 78 total tackles, 18.5 TFLs and 8.5 sacks in 14 games, helping propel the Warriors to a Class 4A title game appearance against Dowling.
Entrenched alongside all-state linebacker Connor Vincent — who finished the 2014 season with a staggering 133.5 total tackles — Vance’s additional responsibilities were minimal. He stayed primarily at outside linebacker, continuing to wreak havoc as a punishing hitter and key run-stopper.
But Vincent was graduated the following year, leaving a sizeable hole in the Warriors’ vaunted unit.
So what did Washington do?
It loaded its defense with Vance, more Vance and some additional Vance.
“What ended up being, just kind of happened organically,” Blue said. “‘Hey, he can do this. OK, let’s do that with him. Oh, wow — he can do this. Let’s do that with him. Hey, he should be able to handle this. Let’s do that. Hey, do you think he can do this?’ That’s how it went with him.
“We knew he was good and was going to be a good player, but we weren’t sure where. Was he going to be like an edge guy? Could he play off? Could he play on the ball? That stuff just kind of happened, but it happened really quick. We’d plug him into what we were doing from a base perspective, and then when he’s able to do all that, it’s, ‘OK, what else can he do? Let’s try this. Let’s try that.’”
Vance ultimately grasped it all, morphing his game into a versatile, quick-strike attack that could inflict damage from a number of angles. He’d swiftly disrupt quarterbacks as a dynamic edge rusher, then drop into coverage on a slot receiver or tight end — all while maintaining his reputation as a forceful run-stuffer.
A dominant junior year ensued: 101 tackles, 27 TFLs and five sacks in 12 games.
Under new leadership, Iowa State perked up.
“I thought the kid was good as a sophomore and then really good as a junior,” Trieu said. “And I think (Iowa State) got in at the perfect time to where they didn’t have to battle a bunch of other schools.”
‘What’s the point in taking forever to pick?’
Although his production was more than sufficient, Vance’s recruitment hadn’t seriously left the ground when new Cyclones coach Matt Campbell stuck the first foot in the door.
Known as a staff that likes to offer numerous guys early , Iowa State pulled the trigger with Vance on Dec. 16, 2015, less than three weeks after Campbell landed the Cyclones job. After researching the solid program Campbell orchestrated at Toledo, Vance visited Ames the second weekend of February and enjoyed what he discovered.
There wasn’t much turnaround before his commitment — as in the next day.
“I just feel like if you find a school that you really love and really want to go there, what’s the point in taking forever to pick?” said Vance, who committed to Iowa State on Feb. 15. “You can just get committed and be like, ‘This is where I want to go.’
“And all these coaches coming and talking to you and having to just basically continually irritate you about something, when you could just go ahead and get it over with and be done with it.”
Sounds like decent logic. But his quick trigger still had some puzzled.
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“We were all kind of surprised that he committed so fast,” Blue said. “I was like, ‘Why?’ And he just talked about the good vibes there. Sometimes it’s good to go with your gut, and as it went, we talked about different scenarios.
“He’s a big Michigan State guy, so I said, ‘OK, Michigan State walks in the door tomorrow and offers you.’ He’s like, ‘I’d stay with Iowa State.’ And as it kept going, ‘Alabama comes in, what are you going to do?’ He said, ‘I’m going to Iowa State.’ As soon as he went down there, he knew. He was good with his decision.”
Various schools, such as Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan State and others, poked around with Vance in the following months, but his firm commitment to Iowa State kept serious traffic at a minimum.
And one other reason too …
‘Lots of work’https://twitter.com/orienvance24/status/823331783194406912
Vance isn’t shy in admitting it.
Homework, projects, studying — all of it — wasn’t appealing.
“No,” Vance said, “I didn’t like school.
In high school’s early stages, Vance said he’d simply “go through the motions” with schoolwork, doing just enough to pass and remain eligible for sports.
The results often reflected the effort.
“C’s, occasionally a D here and there,” he said. “I’d get A’s and B’s every now and then, but I just wouldn’t put my full effort into trying school. Whenever I felt like it, I’d do it — but then sometimes, I’d just say alright, ‘It is what it is.’
“It was to the point where if I didn’t push through the rest of my junior year and senior year, I wouldn’t be eligible at all. I would’ve been borderline not making it.”
Numerous schools, though, didn’t want that risk. Aside from Iowa State, Vance said a number of colleges believed he wouldn’t qualify academically — thus, end up in junior college. So they either backed off or avoided kicking the tires altogether.
“I think the grade issue kind of had an impact on his recruiting,” Blue said. “I remember going to his counselor and was like, ‘Listen, is he going to make it through the (NCAA) clearinghouse?’ And she ran the numbers and said, ‘Oh yeah, he can do it.’”
It then fell on Vance.
Only he could do the work. Only he could lead the change. Only he could go all-in.
And it happened.
“I’ve put in lots of work to get back to being cleared,” Vance said. “It takes a tremendous amount of effort. Even though there are people who help you, having the ability to just say, ‘I’m going to get there and I’m going have all my grades back together,’ takes a lot of effort.”
Coming off another outstanding prep season — 95 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, seven sacks and some running back snaps — Vance’s defensive flexibility allows Iowa State multiple options, something the Cyclones will have to hammer down once he starts flowing in their program.
And if so?
“He’s got the physical qualifications to play early,” Trieu said. “And as long as they can find a role for him, he strikes me, looking at class list, as one of the guys — outside of the junior-college guys — who has a chance to play (right away).”
Vance making an early impact — sound familiar?
“In the four years,” Blue said, “there have been a lot of, ‘Whoas.’
“A lot of ‘Whoa’ moments.”
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.