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Iowa State vs the Big 12: The Defensive Line

Several reasons for optimism, but also a big cause for concern.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Iowa State Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve all heard those cliched football phrases “games are won in the trenches” or that it all “starts up front,” but there’s a reason those lines are perennially dropped by coaches across the country. The defensive line is arguably the most important unit on any given defense, much like the hog mollies on the offensive side of the football. But D-linemen are not found as often as offensive linemen, especially if you are an Iowa State of the college football world, thus putting the Cyclones in a precarious position.

The Cyclones return several players from last year’s much-improved defensive line, yet have one or two big holes to fill (namely the departure of Dale Pierson). In addition, a new coaching staff means change, especially where the defense is concerned. Gone is that hokey-pokey between a base 4-3 defense and a 3-3-5 look as a brand new 4-2-5 scheme takes their place. Where does all this leave the defensive line for 2016? Let’s take a look.

Talent

Campbell and Co. have made it a priority to stockpile talent on the defensive side of the ball (and at every position basically because these guys don’t sleep) and the D-line has benefited from that mindset. The Cyclones managed to sign several defensive lineman/ends who have a shot at playing significant minutes this fall.

JaQuan Bailey is one of those guys. The 6’3” 260 DE from Jacksonville, Florida, has a chance to contribute right away at a position sorely in need of young talent. While the learning curve may be steep, this freshman has the body and strength to play on the D-line as a true freshman. Another young defensive end to keep an eye on is Jamahl Johnson, a 6’1” 318 (!!!) pound defensive tackle from Savage, Minnesota. His play in camp, and his dorm-fridge-like size, has made him another candidate to play as a true freshman.

Jaquan Bailey, ISU

The story of the defensive line in 2016 is not a tale of green-yet-eager newcomers. It is instead a story of age and experience. The Cyclones will return a combined 35 starts along their defensive front this fall. When compared to some of the other position groups on the field (ahem, O-line), this number is definitely a source of optimism.

Though Dale Pierson and his 8.5 total sacks has been removed from the equation, Iowa State will look to returning starter Demond Tucker to have an even better senior campaign. Tucker played at a near all-conference level last season, finishing 9th in the Big 12 in both sacks (6) and tackles for loss (13). Tucker enters the season poised for a big finale, and has the potential to be a first/second team all-conference lineman.

Demond Tucker, ISU

What is there outside of Demond Tucker, you may be wondering? Good question, honestly. While there may be questions about the production of last year’s linemen, their combined experience is hard to discredit. Currently, every single defensive linemen listed on the 2-deep fall camp depth chart is either a junior or senior, and has played significant minutes over the past season(s). Guys like Gabe Luna, Pierre Aka, Robby Garcia, Vernell Trent, Jhaustin Thomas, and the comeback kid, Mitchell Meyers, all have significant experience and are expected to have a better 2016 season.

Depth

On an Iowa State football scale of 1-10, with 1 being the depth of the offensive line and 10 being the depth in the secondary, I’d put the defensive line at around a 6. Would an injury to a key player like Demond Tucker be devastating? Absolutely. But depth is an area where the experience I mentioned above can come in handy.

It is easy to note, however, that the Cyclones return the most depth at both defensive line spots. Tucker, along with Pierre Aka, represent two very large and capable bodies to clog up the middle. Their immediate backups, juniors Vernell Trent and Robby Garcia, have roughly the same bulk to go along with a little less experience than the starters.

Pierre Aka, ISU

Defensive end is where this plot thickens (bum bum bum...). One end spot is currently projected to be manned by junior J.D. Waggoner, a 6’3” 265-pound junior. Waggoner has decent experience (played in 12 games recording 23 tackles, 3 for loss, and 1 sack), and the coaches have been pleased with his progress through spring and fall practice. His backup, Jhaustin Thomas, played a little last year, recording 9 tackles, 2 TFL, and 1 sack in 9 games. It should also be noted that Thomas’ interesting path to ISU kept him from playing a large number of minutes last season.

The other end, a free-range hitman called the Leo, is new to the Cyclone defense in 2016. It appears that spot will be manned by senior Gabe Luna. Backing up Luna will be team hero and fan favorite Mitchell Meyers. Luna, who was a highly touted junior college transfer, has by and large flown under the radar due to injuries. He appears poised to have a big impact on the defense in 2016 so long as he has had time to master his new position. The book is still out on the impact Mitchell Meyers can have on the field in 2016. In my opinion, getting by offensive linemen will be a small task compared to beating cancer.

Gabe Luna, ISU

In short, there is plenty of experience and capable backups on the defensive line in 2016. Any injuries, however, would force several young guys into action in a position that is usually brutal for freshmen to adjust to.

Stacking Up Against The Big 12

Last year the Cyclones had a middle-of-the pack defense in the Big 12 when it comes to the defensive line. Iowa State was very solid in the red zone, which is largely a reflection of ISU’s talented secondary. The Cyclones also finished 6th in sacks with 30, a large improvement from the 15 sacks (last in the Big 12) recorded in 2014 and 2013.

Many of the top defensive linemen in the Big 12 have moved on via graduation or the NFL Draft. The best linemen in the conference for 2016 should include TCU’s Josh Carraway, WVU’s Noble Nwachukwu (bless you), KSU’s Jordan Willis, and ISU’s Demond Tucker.

A defensive line is much more than just one player, however. Traditionally, Iowa State has struggled to recruit defensive linemen that can compare to the monsters inked by Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU. This makes having a good defensive line absolutely crucial to the Cyclones. If the Cyclones can have a middle-ground defensive line in terms of sacks and rushing defense, this should allow the 4-2-5 defense and ISU’s talented secondary to effectively keep pass-happy Big 12 teams on ice.

If not, more ice for my tailgate cooler. Not for my Natty, though. Natty is a drink best served warm.

Outlook

In summary, the defensive line position could be a strength for this defense. It is anchored by a budding all-conference player in Demond Tucker, and is littered with experienced players with decent size and athleticism. The key for a better performance than the 2015 D-line is staying healthy and the consistent improvement by the returning players.

Even with the loss of Dale Pierson, recording at least 30 sacks should be a goal that is not only reasonable, but also required to produce any semblance of an effective defense. This fall, I’ll be watching for the emergence of guys like Gabe Luna and J.D. Waggoner, improvement and more minutes from guys like Vernell Trent and Robby Garcia, and to see whether those talented freshmen will play either due to need of bodies or injuries along the defensive front.