Unless you live in the Deep South you're not likely to find defensive linemen growing on trees. Instead you rely on recruiting big frames and beefing them up for two or three years before they see the field. Even better they see the field in spot situations and become starters in their upperclassmen years. That's the recipe for success at a school like Iowa State, and one they have been unable to follow under most of the Rhoads Era.
It's possible 2015 might be different. Three JUCO signees - DTs Demond Tucker and Bobby Leath, and DE Jhaustin Thomas - bring size and experience to a unit lacking both. Yet it's the four year recruits who finally get their chance to shine.
There is only one sophomore in Iowa State's two deep (NG Vernell Trent) and only two more sophomores when you expand to the three deep (DEs J.D. Waggoner and Justin Madison). Seniors Trent Taylor and Dale Pierson hold down the outside after decent 2014 performances, and DT Pierra Aka has finally earned a starting nod going in to his fourth year in the program.
Size and experience pays off, and if this defense leads Iowa State back to the postseason it will be on the backs of the men up front.
This is your 2015 preview of Iowa State's defensive line.
The Depth Chart
It's hard to anoint the new guy on the block as the leader but Demond Tucker is earning it so far. It's easy to gravitate to a guy who tells the media that Iowa State will surprise people and has been lauded for working on his conditioning in the off season.
Tucker was raw in the spring but he brought something that the defensive line has lacked the previous two seasons: havoc. He's not a guy who's going to sit in the A gap and eat blocks. He's just going to maul the center, maul the guard, and then pull the running back down by the arm. If Tucker can hit his ceiling he becomes a player to gameplan around, and that is a very good thing for this defense.
The X Factor
Is it Jhaustin Thomas? Is it someone else? Optimists drool over Thomas' measurables (6'6", 265 lbs) but he's taken a year off from football. How long it takes him to get in to game shape and learn the playbook is relevant.
The X Factor here is Dale Pierson. Pierson won't wow anyone with his size, but he's got a good motor and is a more polished version of Rony Nelson. What Nelson lacked in size he made up for in speed, and Pierson has that plus some solid moves on the outside. Pierson could be cut in that Shawn Moorehead mold where the rest of the defensive line is stout enough that Pierson is matched up one-on-one with a tackle; much to his benefit.
A Relevant Stat
Teams averaged 5.7 yards per carry on the season against Iowa State's defense last year. Broken down by direction teams went 5.9 YPC to the left, 5.3 YPC in the middle, and 7 YPC to the right. As much as I expounded on the virtues of Dale Pierson above, it was the combination of him and undersized linebackers like Luke Knott and Drake Ferch that surrendered the most bloodshed on defense.
Someone lands on an All Big XII team; most likely Tucker. The line alone racks up 20+ sacks (almost a 2 per game average) and limits opponent rushing attacks to less than four yards per carry.
A constant rotation of players up front due to injuries and poor play leads to fewer than 10 sacks on the season, over five yards per carry, and a dismantled and dejected defense.
The Final Verdict
Whether it be by development or recruiting JUCOs, the Burnhams finally have the big bodies in the trenches they need to run an aggressive defensive front and attack teams. Shane Burnham spoke the other day after practice about using more gap attacking strategies to try to force defenses to adapt and it has everything to do with how Demond Tucker changes things.
His dorm refrigerator physique combined with his high motor makes him a load to handle up front, and it opens things up for more experienced guys like Devlyn Cousin and Pierson to attack their own gaps.
Concerns about the size and experience of this line remain, but for the first time since 2012 there is a rotation that can go three deep at every position and keep players fresh as games move in to the 4th quarter. This defensive line isn't going to be regarded as the best in the conference, but a few players might change perceptions enough to take the line back to an average level and the Cyclones back to the postseason.