Let me repeat that statement: The defensive line may be the strongest position group for the Cyclones in 2018.
When was the last time any
non-homer level-headed Cyclone fan could honestly utter that phrase without earning a response such as “don’t tell me it’s raining when you’re peeing on down my leg”?
The talent and depth at the defensive line is evident (more on that later), and is even more impressive when you examine the departures.
Gone is Vernell Trent, who played rather solidly in 2017, who started 10 games and picked up 15 tackles (one for loss) and forced one fumble.
The departure of J.D. Waggoner will also surely be felt as we move into 2018. There may be no better comeback story than the season this young man in 2018, as he went from playing sparingly in his sophomore/junior seasons to racking up 42 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks as a senior.
There are four new guys worth discussing, as all four may find some playing time in 2018. Let’s start with the redshirt freshmen.
Angel Dominguez checks in at 6’4”, 280 pounds after sitting out the 2017 campaign. Dominguez was a bit of a prized recruit (selected ISU over Oklahoma State and Kansas State), coming in as a top 60 defensive linemen in his class.
The same could be said about Tucker Robertson. Checking in at the same exact size as Dominguez, Robertson chose ISU over the likes of Arizona, Washington State, and Notre Dame (!!!).
Moving on to the new-new guys, the coaching staff has absolutely raved about one Will McDonald. McDonald, the 46th best DE in his class and a top-5 player from the state of Wisconsin, checks in at 6’4”, 213, which is a bit undersized for the DE position.
Undersized? Yes. But you should watch how this kid plays.
Zach Peterson rounds out the group. The Long Grove, IA native was rated as the 61st best DE in the country, and was a top 5 recruit in the state of Iowa. He chose the good guys over the bad guys (Iowa), the ugly guys (Nebraska), and guys we absolutely hate (Kansas State). Peterson needs to put on some weight as well, as he joined the program with around 236 pounds on his 6’4” frame.
Leaders of the Pack:
There are four starters on the defensive line, hence there needs to be four “leaders of the pack”. There are, and that in and of itself is an accomplishment for a position group largely unfamiliar with the idea of clearly defined starters.
The defensive end positions are manned by JaQuan Bailey and Eyni Uwazurike. Bailey, who earned HM All-Big 12 honors in 2017, has emerged as a determined pass rusher and havoc-wreaker in the backfield, as evidenced by his 11 TFL and 7 sacks in 2017. Enyi moves into the starter role after being a key reserve in 2017.
JaQuan Bailey will look to break the career sack record in 2018 (8 sacks to go), and he could also shoot for the single-season record of 8.5 sacks held by Shawn Morehead. Bailey is a known quantity at defensive end, and word out of camp is that he has shred the spare tire he carried around his waist and now looks like a dude. Eyni has also bulked up, getting his weight up to 280+ pounds. This means the coaching staff will have the option of having him rush the passer from the interior, a skill he showed flashes of in 2018.
At defensive tackle, the Cyclones may return the best nose-guard in the country in Ray Lima. Big Ray is the monster in the middle, and while his stats didn’t show it, he deserved much more recognition than his HM All-Big 12 selection in 2017. Lima will once again draw double-teams in 2018, freeing up other linemen the linebackers to make plays around him.
Lima’s partner in the trenches one of the feel-good stories of the 2018 season: Jamahl Johnson. It has come to light in recent weeks that Johnson was hanging on by a thread last season, and did not feel committed to the game or his teammates at times. However, he emerged late in the season (especially in the Liberty Bowl), and has put together a tremendous off-season.
While it is tempting to go with Peterson/McDonald, who will likely see time thanks to the new red-shirt rule, or Dominguez/Robertson, who are also likely to see limited reps, I’m going with the definite wildcards of the bunch: Matt Leo and Kamilo Tongamoa.
Matt Leo certainly looks the part of a Big 12 defensive end. Heck, he looks the part of a WWE wrestler. But Leo has only played football for a handful of years, and that combined with injures led to him receiving a medical red-shirt in 2017. I’m willing to wager that an additional year learning the game will pay off in a big way for Matt Leo in 2018.
If you Google “worst way to start a football season”, you are likely to see Kamilo Tongamoa’s name pop up. The highly-touted JUCO transfer missed all of spring and summer ball, arriving on campus for the start of fall camp. On top of that, he was rather out of shape. This combination of factors limited him to minimal action in 4 games last season. Word out of fall camp is that Tongamoa is slimmed down, stronger than ever, and ready to make an impact on the defensive line.
My projection is simple: Iowa State’s defensive line is their best position group in 2018, and is one of the best in the country. It boasts young talent with a chance to make an impact straight away, capable backups in Spencer Benton/Matt Leo/Kamilo Tongamoa/Josh Bailey, and top-end talent among all four starters. And with only 2 seniors departing (Benton and Tongamoa), it’s likely that the elite play of the defensive line is here to stay.