Other than its weekly conference turmoil, the Big 12 is most notable for its breakneck brand of college football, where huddles are rare and wide receiver screens are an integral part of the running game. So it makes sense that new Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell and his staff made the defensive backfield a focus of their first recruiting class.
Of the 26 newcomers that have made it to campus, six are defensive backs. To further bolster the back-end for the upcoming season, Iowa State signed a P5 transfer at safety while stealing from its own linebacker corps to add depth at cornerback. It’s all in hopes that when the Cyclones take the field against the elite offensive players of the Big 12, they’ll have the speed and skill set to simply keep the game within reach.
While Campbell has moved quickly to restock the defensive backfield, the returning roster is not without experience or talent. Paul Rhoads’ staff deserves credit for signing a couple of overlooked recruits who, early in their career, have shown flashes of all-conference play.
The leader of the new staff’s 4-2-5 scheme will be junior safety Kamari Cotton-Moya. As a redshirt freshman, Cotton-Moya was named Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. He showed adequate cover skills with 8 passes defended, but he garnered the most attention for punishing running backs and receivers close to the line of scrimmage. Cotton-Moya is expected to return to all-conference form after a shortened 2015 season, when he missed the final six games because of a hamstring injury.
Perhaps the biggest surprise last season on the defensive side of the ball was Brian Peavy, a lightly-recruited cornerback out of Houston, Texas. As a redshirt freshman, Peavy was elite in coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks completed only 43 of 80 passes that went his way. Peavy will likely draw the opponent’s top receiver on a weekly basis, and if last season’s performance is any indication, he won’t be intimidated or over-matched.
The depth chart released prior to Big 12 Media Days listed redshirt freshman Mike Johnson as the starter at strong safety. Johnson greyshirted in 2014 after choosing Iowa State over Arizona, Louisville and Texas Tech. After redshirting last season, Johnson will bring more experience than a typical freshman. He flashed his potential in the spring game and could be a pleasant surprise for the Cyclones.
The two-deep lists senior Jomal Wiltz as the starting left cornerback heading into camp. Wiltz has the speed to keep up with Big 12 receivers, but his transition from the JUCO ranks wasn’t always the smoothest — often caught with his back to the ball last season.
Senior Nigel Tribune should be the favorite here as a returning three-year starter, but off-the-field issues have left him suspended indefinitely. Wiltz is the safe bet to start, but if Tribune gets out of the doghouse, we could see a change later in the season.
The secondary is more equipped to handle injuries than most position groups on the Iowa State roster, but that’s not saying much. Any injuries to Cotton-Moya or Peavy would be devastating, but the coaches are hopeful that they’ve found a few players that can be trusted when the bullets start flying.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the secondary this offseason was Evrett Edwards, a grad transfer safety from Duke. Edwards played in 25 games for the Blue Devils the past two seasons and should be accustomed to the demands of a P5 football program. Evrett graduated from Duke in three years, so the mental part of the game shouldn’t be an issue. He will compete with Johnson at strong safety and has a chance to start if Johnson is unable to handle a Big 12 workload.
Another newcomer that will compete for the starting strong safety spot is JUCO transfer Thadd Daniels from Cerritos College in Norwalk, California. At this point, it looks like Daniels will be more of a utility player, providing depth where needed.
Jay Jones, a starting linebacker last season in a 3-4 scheme, was moved to cornerback in the offseason. He will back up Peavy and provide an intriguing option for defensive coordinator Jon Heacock in the red zone, where his long frame could clog passing lanes.
De’Monte Ruth, a redshirt sophomore, will back up Cotton-Moya at free safety but likely won’t be pressed into action.
Stacking Up Against the Big 12
The Cyclones’ pass defense has been, uh, underwhelming for a few years now. Last season, Iowa State gave up 297 passing yards per game, only outperforming an 0-12 Kansas team. The Cyclones also were dead last in interceptions while allowing opponents to convert 50 percent of all third downs — also good for last in the conference. Iowa State will need to see significant improvement in those areas to move up in the Big 12.
It’s no surprise that the best team in the conference, Oklahoma, leads the way in defensive backfield talent. The Sooners landed two players on the media’s preseason All-Big 12 Team. Jordan Thomas, a junior cornerback, was second-team All-Big 12 last season and will anchor the OU defense, while Jordan Parker continues to emerge as a big-time playmaker at safety.
Gary Patterson’s defense at TCU is always an elite group, and this year will be no different. TCU ranked second in the conference in pass defense efficiency last season, and with three returning starters, it’s fair to expect similar results. Keep an eye on senior Denzel Johnson, who had 13.5 tackles for loss last season from the safety position.
The Big 12 isn’t known for its stingy pass defenses, so it gets a little thin after the top two teams. I expect Texas to make a jump as Charlie Strong’s defensive-minded approach finally meshes with a talented roster. The rest of the conference is likely to still be playing catch-up to the league’s innovative offensive coordinators.
The numbers look bad: too many third-down conversions allowed and too few turnovers forced. The most successful defenses in Iowa State history have prided themselves on getting off the field on third down and forcing turnovers.
With Cotton-Moya healthy and Peavy coming off of a breakout season, the Cyclones are poised to return to that aggressive, ball-hawking style that Campbell has made a priority since arriving in Ames.
The coaching staff has done an honorable job of building depth, adding Edwards, moving Jones and even grabbing a walk-on with NFL pedigree in Mackenro Alexander. But if Iowa State is to make a bowl in 2016, the top-end talent must show up for the Cyclones on a weekly basis. That means Johnson reaching his potential at strong safety, and perhaps most importantly, getting Tribune back on track mentally.
If Tribune returns to his sophomore form, when he earned second-team All-Big 12 honors, Iowa State’s defensive backfield can be as good as it’s been in more than a decade. If Tribune is unable to return from suspension, Wiltz will have to be more consistent in defending deep routes.
I expect some growing pains as Iowa State defenders adjust to a new coaching staff and its preferred 4-2-5 alignment, but this group is one of the most talented on the roster. If the defensive line is able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the defensive backfield could be a bright spot early in the Campbell era.