Over the past couple week or so, we’ve been previewing each position group for the 2019 season. Today, we’re going to take a look at possibly the only position group on defense that has any significant questions at all, cornerback.
The departures of Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne this past offseasons are arguably the biggest overall losses for any position group.
Peavy established himself from day one as one of the best corners in the Big 12, earning Honorable Mention All-Big 12 honors as a redshirt freshman after leading the team in tackles, pass deflections, and interceptions. Fast forward to last season, when he received Second Team All-American honors from the Coaches and AP, graded out as one of the best corners in college football by Pro Football Focus, and was widely considered the best corner in the Big 12. Matt Campbell also repeatedly lauded his work ethic, and tabbed him as one of the foundational “culture changers” that set the table for Iowa State’s remarkable turnaround over the past few season. Peavy’s impact and loss both on and off the field shouldn’t be understated.
D’Andre Payne sometimes ends up in the shadow of Peavy simply due to how great his secondary counterpart was, but his legacy should be that of one of the catalysts of the “modern” Cyclone defense that’s now sweeping through college and NFL coaching offices alike. After arriving in Ames as a transfer by way of Tennessee and Arizona Western Community College, Payne immediately established himself as a versatile playmaker, winning the Drury Moss Award as the team’s top newcomer while mostly playing the STAR position, which was essentially brand new to the defensive scheme. Payne’s versatility to play both corner and safety (and the STAR) allowed Jon Heacock significant flexibility in personnel and scheme, which gave rise to the dynamic secondary that’s been giving the league fit for the past couple seasons.
Kym-Mani King and D.J. Miller make up the two true freshman newcomers at corner, Rice transfer Justin Bickham could also see some time at corner, but he’s currently listed on the depth chart as a safety, so we’ll cover him in that group.
Jake Brend looked at some of DJ Miller’s tape and was impressed with the true freshman. At 5’11” he’s right about average for a Big 12 cornerback, and his fluid footwork should allow him to gain some playing time this season, provided he can pick up the scheme quickly. He wasn’t listed on the first depth chart before fall camp, but Miller was also not around for spring practice, so that’s not really a surprise.
Similar to Miller, Kym-Mani King has some really impressive high school tape, where he also played quarterback. Undoubtedly, his role as quarterback was probably a big factor in the staff’s decision to go after him. After all, David Montgomery and Deshaunte Jones were both high school quarterbacks, and clearly utilized that intelligence to their advantage in college. King should pick up the scheme fairly quickly, so he has a great chance to put himself in position for some playing time behind the starters.
Interestingly enough, both King and Miller have been receiving rave reviews throughout fall camp, and will likely play in their four redshirt games at minimum. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if one or both of them played well enough to earn enough playing time to burn their redshirts, though the youth of the starters may persuade the staff to preserve their redshirts for the pure purpose of keeping them in Ames for an extra season.
Leader(s) of the Pack
Currently listed as the starting left corner, Johnson had a breakout season as a true freshman in 2018. Initially, most thought he would be shut down after his four redshirt games, but he ended up earning playing time in twelve games, including four starts. He was so good as a freshman that D’Andre Payne was able to move back to the STAR position, where he excelled and allowed Greg Eisworth to have great success at safety. Heading into his true sophomore season, many expect Johnson to have a true breakout season and establish himself as one of the conference’s best corners.
Delray Beach, FL-native Datrone “Speedy” Young impressed last season as a redshirt freshman playing in eight games with three starts before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury. Iowa State’s defensive scheme relies heavily on the corners being able to lock down in a man-to-man coverage, and, like Peavy before him, has showed a ton of promise as a somewhat undersized (5’9”) corner.
Young’s injury was obviously unfortunate, but did have a silver lining in that it opened up more playing time for Anthony Johnson to develop into the promising young player he is. At some point in their careers, these two will be considered the unquestioned best cornerback duo in the conference, possibly as soon as this season.
This section is a bit tricky, since depth is the main question in regards to this position group, and the depth chart currently shows two “OR” backups for each corner spot. Behind Anthony Johnson at left corner is WR-convert Amechie Walker and redshirt freshman Jaeveyon Morton, who didn’t play at all last season. Behind Datrone Young at the right corner spot is RS Sophomore Keontae Jones (younger brother of Deshaunte) and RS Freshman Tayvonn Kyle, who didn’t play in any of his redshirt games last season (though that probably was mostly due to the depth at corner last season).
These backup spots are difficult to project, given that Deshaunte Jones is the only one that’s actually played any snaps at corner before, and that was just three games last season. Without much game tape to go on, my guesses would be for Jaeveyon Morton and Tayvonn Kyle to take the backup positions at their respective positions. Walker will probably get some PT, but how much will depend on how quickly he’s picked up the position. At the right corner spot, neither have much game experience to lean on, but Tayvonn Kyle is probably the more naturally-gifted athlete, so I’d expect him to cement himself as the backup by mid-season or so.
Cornerback stats are difficult to project since they’re extremely dependent on how the opponents play, and what the overall ability of the opposing quarterback looks like. Jon Heacock’s defensive scheme doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the cornerbacks racking up a ton of interceptions, but it’s probably fair to expect both Datrone Young and Anthony Johnson to register at least a two or three this season, though their impact will be felt beyond just creating turnovers. These two should be the best young corners in the conference, and at least one could potentially play their way into First Team All-Big 12 considerations.
At the backup spots, I think Tayvonn Kyle and Jaeveyon Morton will eventually pull ahead and claim the backup spots outright. However, you shouldn’t be surprised if either of the true freshman eventually claim a significant number of snaps, or even burn their redshirt.