One of the toughest positions to recruit, year in and year out, is the defensive line. Schools from the south gain the upper hand with the best crop of d-linemen in the country, while Iowa’s claim to fame are the hog mollies on the offensive front.
Every once in a great while, ISU garners a diamond in the rough, ala Jason Berryman and Reggie Hayward. This past recruiting class was filled with EIGHT, count em EIGHT, defensive linemen, as Coach Campbell clearly recognizes that the game is “won in the trenches.”
Entering the 2017 season, one of the biggest question marks is in fact that defensive line. We will walk you through what we have to work with for the upcoming season.
Iowa State loses three starters from a year ago, as Mitchell Meyers, Demond Tucker and Jhaustin Thomas all graduated. Tucker lost a step from his junior to senior season, but the effective play (and buy-in to the system) from Thomas was encouraging. ISU has its own Jhaustin Thomas on the roster – as 6-foot-7, 280-pound Matt Leo enters the depth chart number two at defensive tackle. The man from down under is truly a work in progress, having only played football for two years, but his frame and freakish athletic ability could allow him to be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.
Focus. #RaiseTheStandard pic.twitter.com/Ynx0n5oNwp— Cyclone Football (@CycloneFB) June 22, 2017
The only returning starter is JaQuan Bailey, one of the top recruits in the 2016 class. Bailey, playing as a true freshman at the LEO spot, led the team in sacks with 3.5, and according to coach Campbell, went from “carrying a tire around his belly” to now “looking like a sculpted statue”. In other words, the man got in the weight room, and is ready to eat some quarterbacks for breakfast.
Senior J.D. Waggoner holds down the strong-side of the defensive line (for now), as emerging redshirt freshman Eyioma Uwazurike is on his heels to steal the spot. Uwazurike is another physical specimen, who now weighs nearly 290 pounds, and has the necessary Big 12 speed to get around the edge.
Manning the inside is JUCO Ray Lima, the front-runner for Polynesian Player of the Year (not joking), and Vernell Trent, who has been quite under-whelming in his career.
One of the biggest issues from last season was the lack of physical bodies to put on the field late in games. The drop off in talent from first- to second-string was insurmountable, and it showed on the field, most notably in the front four.
Campbell and defensive-line coach Eli Rasheed have made it their mission to stockpile as much talent as possible at the defensive line position, and for the first time in a long-time I can truly say ISU has legitimate Big 12 players at the position.
Now all we need is for one or two to exceed expectations, and give the Cyclones the pass rush they haven’t had since the late, great Jason Berryman played in Ames. One of the biggest game-changers during the Rhoads era, who single-handedly changed the outlook of the 2010 season, was defensive end Jacob Lattimer. His performance at Texas (first win in history vs. Longhorns) changed the dynamic of the entire defense – and that is all we are looking for – one guy who can get to the quarterback. All it takes is one, and the rest will take care of itself.
How they Stack up in Big 12
It’s not good.
In fact, if we were picking teams on the playground, ISU’s D-line would be equivalent to Malcom in the Middle’s little brother – last.
Even Kansas has someone better, with Preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Dorance Armstrong, Jr. Texas would have the two captains making selections at recess – ala Poona Ford (his actual name) and Malcolm Roach.
The only team the Cyclones could claim bragging rights against would be Texas Tech’s, as they allowed a porous 239 rushing yards per game, and a linebacker named Joel Lanning to score 5 rushing touchdowns against them last year.
I’m not too worried about the outside, as JaQuan Bailey is quite possibly the most talented, and J.D. Waggoner one of the most experienced. It’s the inside that makes me worried, especially the lack of girth and depth. I’ve yet to talk about heralded 2017 recruit Kamilo Tongomoa, as the JUCO product hasn’t made it to campus as of me writing this. Even if he makes it tomorrow, he will be a non-factor for the majority of the season.
In my article on keys to making a bowl game, I mentioned that ISU has to put more pressure on the quarterback in 2017. A year ago, the ‘Clones averaged a paltry 1.58 sacks per game, while bowl-eligible teams averaged 2.37. I think if we get a little bit more out Bailey, and a pleasant surprise like Uwazurike and/or Matt Leo were to emerge, then this young defensive line can average over 2+ sacks per game.
That goes a long way in attaining stops on third down, and to let Mr. Park orchestrate the offense with a devastating amount of skill positions to get the ball to.