Cyclone fans should feel comfortable with the defensive secondary, where Iowa State returns two starters, benefits from a position change, and adds a graduate transfer from the SEC. This is one position unit that appears to benefit from talent AND experience — a rarity on a young Iowa State roster. If the Cyclones front seven can be serviceable, the defensive backfield is poised for a standout season.
One of the unquestioned leaders of the program, Kamari Cotton-Moya is the headliner in this unit. The fifth-year senior safety earned second-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2016 and was the Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. Cotton-Moya is a hard-hitting free safety that specializes in run support, tallying 58 solo tackles, good for 27th nationally. If the defensive line and linebackers can do a better job up front, look for Cotton-Moya to become more of a ball hawk rather than strictly playing cleanup duty. He’ll need to tighten up his coverage skills, specifically on deep balls, if he wants to take his game to the next level.
Playing next to Cotton-Moya at strong safety is likely to be Reggie Wilkerson, a graduate transfer from Georgia. Wilkerson arrived in Ames after receiving his degree from the SEC school, where he played in 20 games over four seasons. Wilkerson was originally listed at 170 pounds — very much on the small side for a Big 12 safety. He was able to put on 15 pounds in the offseason, and the staff seems confident he’s ready to play. Wilkerson clearly has talent as he played in every game as a sophomore at Georgia. Whether he was passed up on the depth chart or fell out of favor with a new coaching staff, his experience in a Power 5 program is a welcome addition to the Cyclone program.
Brian Peavy is the other returning starter in the secondary. The junior cornerback from Houston, Texas, has been one of the steadiest performers on the Cyclones defense the past two seasons, twice earning All-Big 12 Honorable Mention honors from the league’s coaches. Peavy led the Cyclones in pass breakups in 2015 and 2016 with 10 and 11 PBUs, respectively. Iowa State knows what it’s getting in Peavy – good to great coverage and a solid tackler in the open field. But following Campbell’s praise of Peavy’s leadership in the offseason, perhaps Peavy can break through as one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
In the spring, D’Andre Payne made the switch from the Star position to his more natural position, cornerback. Payne started 8 games last season for the Cyclones after transferring from Arizona Western Community College. His 4-star skills translated to immediate impact for the Cyclone defense. Payne recorded 36 solo tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and seven pass breakups while flashing elite playmaking ability. Payne is a physical cover corner that can also make plays at the line of scrimmage. He should be a nice complement to Peavy’s steady play on the other side.
Taking over for Payne at the Star position is senior Evrett Edwards. The Star is a hybrid position that covers slot receivers while also providing run support near the line of scrimmage. Edwards started five games last season and played his best ball at the end of the schedule. If he can match Payne’s physical presence closer to the line of scrimmage, Edwards will be a solid option at Star. However, Iowa State looks to be moving to a more traditional 4-3-4 scheme with three linebackers, so Edwards may have a more limited role. He’ll still see plenty of action and should be a solid contributor.
In addition to Edwards’ duties at Star, he’s also the backup free safety – a testament to his dependability and knowledge of the scheme. Cotton-Moya’s hard-hitting style leaves him vulnerable to injury, but Edwards is a capable backup here.
Before Wilkerson’s transfer, the staff was said to be favoring redshirt freshman Lawrence White to be the starter at strong safety. That’s a good indication of White’s potential, but it’s probably better for all parties that Wilkerson is the man here. White will get some valuable reps and have a head start on the starting spot next season.
De’Monte Ruth is listed at No. 2 on the depth chart behind Peavy. Ruth is a Rhoads recruit that has steadily climbed the depth chart after contributing on special teams the past two seasons. Ruth is one of the quickest guys on the team, but he lacks experience and size. If Peavy were to need any time off the field, Ruth is a wildcard that opposing offenses would likely target.
Listed behind Payne on the pre-camp depth chart was Arnold Azunna. The 6-foot, 194-pound redshirt freshman nearly saw the field last season in his first year with the program. He’s said to be one of the, if not the, best cover corner on the roster.
How They Stack Up vs. The Big 12
The Cyclones might be a little overlooked when compared to the rest of the league. Kansas State returns arguably the best cornerback in the Big 12 in D.J. Reed, and TCU returns top safety Nick Orr. Oklahoma’s Jordan Thomas is entering his fourth year as a starter for the Sooners, and earned first-team honors last season at cornerback.
While most publications rank the Cyclone secondary somewhere in the middle of the conference, Iowa State’s mix of talent and experience could make them a nice surprise to the rest of the conference. The stats might not tell the whole story, but I expect Cotton-Moya and Co. to be a top-4 unit in the Big 12.
The Cyclone pass defense ranked dead last in the Big 12 last season and only 8th in pass defense efficiency. But those eye-opening stats don’t tell the whole story, as the Cyclones front seven gave up big run after big run while getting little pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If Iowa State can find a pass rush, we could see more turnovers and a very stingy pass defense given the returning talent in the secondary. Until then, however, we’ll see opposing offenses pick apart the middle of the field before hitting bombs downfield, where the safeties have struggled in recent seasons.
The hope is Wilkerson can make an impact at strong safety, and Payne becomes an all-conference guy at cornerback. We’ll see, but Iowa State fans should feel comfortable with this group.