Brace yourself, Cyclone fans; the 2013 season might be a long one for the defense. Iowa State lost so many senior leaders on defense, and with their replacements being freshmen and sophomores, it's just hard to know how the younger players will step up to the challenge of a starting role.
Of course All-Big 12 linebackers AJ Klein and Jake Knott are gone, but so is All-Big 12 defensive tackle Jake McDonough, strong safety Durrell Givens, tiny-yet-mighty cornerback Jeremy Reeves and almost everyone who's ever played on the defensive line in the last three years. That's a lot to replace in one season, especially in the front seven.
So Wally Burnham definitely has his work cut out for him this year. How will the 2013 defense respond to the loss of so many seniors, including Klein and Knott, the heart and soul of the defense for the past three years? The spring game will be the first opportunity to find out, so let's take a look at what to watch for on defense this Saturday.
Attack of the Defensive Backs: Almost by default, this is the most experienced position group on the defense. The DBs only lost one second team All-Big 12 selection (SS Durrell Givens) and a three year starter (Jeremy Reeves). So yeah, that's pretty good, comparatively.
The safety spots appear to be settled, with returning free safety Jacques Washington (5) and nickel back-turned-free safety Deon Broomfield (26) returning for their senior campaigns. At cornerback, Jansen Watson (2) is out for the spring with a shoulder injury, so cornerback is going to be covered by redshirt sophomores Kenneth Lynn (6) and Sam Richardson (4), backed up by redshirt freshmen Damein Lawry (17) and Charlie Rogers (11).
How is second year defensive backs coach Troy Douglas going to handle his unit (heh) this year? Douglas likes to coach an aggressive brand of football, dependent on takeaways and turnovers. Since the DBs will likely have to cover their receiver for an extended period of time each possession due to the lack of pressure on the quarterback, will they still be coached to take chances and go for the interception? Watch the defensive backs to see if they're playing soft coverage to limit big play potential, or if they continue to gamble for the big turnover.
Baby Linebackers: Shit, it finally happened. AJ Klein and Jake Knott went and graduated, leaving two 250-pound holes in the center of the field for Iowa State's defense. But that's okay! Because Iowa State recruited and signed nine high school linebackers from 2010-2012, so there's more than enough depth and experience to cover the loss... What's that? Only four of those players are still on the team? Oh... oh GOD. This isn't good. This isn't good at all.
It's one of the mysteries of Iowa State football that the same period that produced two of the best linebackers in school history, overseen by a legend who's coached some of the best linebackers the college game has ever seen, is the same period that's seen a mass exodus at that position. It doesn't make sense, but Iowa State no longer has the dual band aids of Klein and Knott to cover up the thin depth chart. Instead, ISU has one senior, two juniors and a few underclassmen.
So watch the linebackers. Seriously, just watch them during the spring game. ISU fans have been so accustomed to not worrying about the middle of the field that Saturday will likely be an eye-opening experience, and not in a good way. Paul Rhoads has praised Jeremiah George's (52) and Jevohn Miller's (55) maturity and leadership this spring, which is a promising sign. A true freshman, Alton Meeks (44), is in the two deeps; which is a much less promising sign.
The Rebuilding of a Defensive Line: Last season, Iowa State had a wealth of senior experience on the depth chart. Six ends and tackles were seniors in 2012, and that depth and experience allowed Shane Burnham and Curtis Bray to shuttle a lot of players in and out of the rotation, reducing fatigue at the end of games.
Unfortunately, as is the nature of college, those seniors all graduated. But unlike the linebackers, there is some depth and experience there. Not much, but enough to be encouraged. For example, redshirt freshmen DTs Pierre Aka (AKA BAMF, #91) and Collin Bevins (18) are already listed at over 6'4" and 270 pounds, making them larger than most of the juniors and seniors on Iowa State's line.
Wait, is that a good thing? Maybe not for the 2013 season, but it's definitely a reassuring indicator for the future.
So watch to see how much pressure this young group can get on the quarterback. Iowa State's offensive line is almost equally as inexperienced, so Saturday's game should be good test of an undeveloped irresistible force meeting an untested immovable object.
Time: Saturday, April 20 at 2:00 PM Central (Jack Trice Stadium, parking first come, first served in A,B,C & D lots)
Media: No television, audio only through Cyclones.tv
Format: Scrimmage, offense vs. defense
Out: Emmanuel Bibbs TE, Ernst Brun TE, Shaban Dika OL (Career-ending ACL tears), Tad Ecby WR (Hamstring), David Irving DE (Shoulder), Shontrelle Johnson RB (Knee surgery), Jansen Watson CB (Shoulder)
Why You Should Go: Get your first look at the 2013 football team, pick up the new poster and a new t-shirt from Cy's Locker Room, and drink a beer or two in the Jack Trice parking lot in perfect football weather. What other excuse do you need?