One of the biggest question marks heading into the season was the play of the defensive line. The Cyclones had lost three starters from a year ago, and needed to make large strides if they wanted to become competitive in the Big 12. And by large, I mean quantum leaps.
Enter Ray Lima. The less-heralded of two JUCO recruits (Kamilo Tongomoa the other), Lima was forced into the starting lineup, and passed with flying colors.
There were a few more surprises along the way – as pass rush specialists J.D. Waggoner, Enyi Uwazurike, and even Carson Lensing showed flashes of brilliance. And we saw a much more disciplined and improved Jaquan Bailey as the season went along.
Iowa State’s ability to eat up offensive linemen’s blocks allowed the linebacking crew of Willie Harvey, Joel Lanning and Marcel Spears to feed upon ball carriers.
And eat they did. Not only did the second line of defense piggyback off of the outstanding play of the line, but the secondary experienced similar results.
The 3-man front that ISU applied in the latter part of the season put more speed and coverage on the field, which in turn helped the Cyclones slow down the offenses of the Big 12.
None of that could have happened without the stellar play of the defensive line.
Iowa State’s defensive numbers all improved dramatically from a year ago, and it all started up front. One of the most important statistics was rushing defense, as the Cyclones went from giving up 218 yards per game and a 5.0 yard-per-carry average in 2016, down to 128 and 3.6. That was good for fourth in the conference.
They also improved upon their pass rushing numbers, jumping from 2nd to last in the conference to 4th in sacks per game. Needless to say, the Iowa State defense was one of the most impressive units in college football, holding all but one conference opponent to an average of 16.4 points below their average season-scoring output.
Position MVP: Ray Lima
Was there any bigger playmaker for the defense than big #76? Even for short lapses in the TCU and Memphis game, when the big 310-pounder was out of the game, the opponent gashed ISU for multiple big gains.
The JUCO product out of El Camino College paved the way for defensive coordinator Jon Heacock to implement a 3-man front, and it changed the dynamic of the entire defense.
You da real MVP Lima.
Highlight of Season: Season-high 6 sacks in Bowl Game
Future NFL pro and former Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson was amazed by all the different looks he was getting in the Liberty Bowl. So amazed, that he ended up getting sacked six times, and pressured on multiple other occasions.
ISU held the 2nd highest scoring offense in the nation to a season-low 20 points, and did it with pressure from up front. Jaquan Bailey and J.D. Waggoner each had a two sacks from the outside edge, and when the Cyclones needed a stop at the end of the game, it was their pass rush that sealed the victory.
GIF of Season: Sack Strip of TCU’s Kenny Hill
It was so loud the camera was shaking profusely on the screen…
Breakout Player: JD Waggoner
I am going to miss this leg-kicking, motor-always-running, crazy-man-that-he-is in J.D. Waggoner. A forgotten senior from the Rhoads regime who was overlooked by many before the season (including myself), Waggoner blossomed in his second year in the Heacock defense.
Wearing #58 in memory of the late Curtis Bray (former ISU defensive line coach), the fifth-year product out of Texas had a season to remember. Waggoner led the Cyclone defense with 13 tackles-for-loss, and was a second-team All-Big 12 selection.
Oh, and he had the best celebration of all – the patented leg kick
How has seemingly everything been talked about, but we continue to take the FLAWLESS extension in @jd_waggoner rodeo leg kick for granted??? pic.twitter.com/NwaPAMHdm5— Bo (@BrianBonacci_) January 1, 2018
A quick honorable mention for this honor was defensive tackle Vernell Trent, who held his own on the interior and surpassed all expectations in 2017.
Outlook for 2018
This defensive line is stockpiled with talent. I mean, the cupboard is full of cookies, little debbies, and all the brownies. Eat away Cyclone fans, because this defensive line is only going to get better.
Vernell Trent and Waggoner have graduated, but the Cyclones bring back starters Bailey and Lima, and will have some of the best position battles for the remaining two spots.
For the other defensive tackle position – look for Jamahl Johnson and Kamilo Tongomoa to be the front runners, with Josh Bailey a wildcard. Johnson’s vertical penetration was evident when he saw the field, and Tongomoa showed flashes, but not the consistency needed from defensive line coach Eli Rasheed.
For the other end spot, I think it is Enyi Uwazurike’s position to lose. The freakish 6-foot-6, 288-pound sophomore-to-be is said to one of the best athletes on the entire roster. Behind him, look for Matt Leo to slowly progress, as well as Carson Lensing and walk-on sensation Spencer Benton, who is a spitting image of my main man J.D. Waggoner.
Either way, I think Iowa State is as well stocked on the defensive line as they were in the Reggie Hayward, Ryan Harklau, and James Reed days. Look out folks.