Over the final few days of the offseason, we at WRNL are breaking down every position group from the quarterbacks down to the special teams. I’ll be looking over what the safety position has lost and gained since last season, where they stand headed into the season, and what my expectations are for the unit this year.
The safeties are coached by D.K. McDonald, who has been with Matt Campbell for the past eight seasons, including four with Iowa State. The safeties have been good for Iowa State in the past, including Kamari Cotton-Moya, Nik Moser, Jacques Washington, Steve Paris, and a handful more, but the group jumped to another level in 2018. They return all three starters at the strong safety, free safety, and the STAR position.
The only loss from the 2018 group is De’Monte Ruth, a player that I was never too high on. He was a solid player that added some depth and even had some notable moments, but he should be pretty replaceable.
Bickham is a graduate transfer from Rice who’ll figure to push for playing time at the safety spot early in the season. In three seasons, Bickham appeared in 32 games while starting 23 of them and recorded 70 tackles and 19 pass breakups with one interception. At the very least, Bickham will add depth and a veteran presence to a secondary that could use it; anything more than that is gravy.
This wide receiver-convert redshirted last season, and will be pushing for playing time at the strong safety spot in 2019. Spears was named Special Teams Scout Team Player of the Year last season, which undoubtedly has him in the good graces of the coaching staff.
There are three true freshman that could see the field, but probably not enough to burn their redshirt. Isheem Young is the fourth highest rated player in the 2019 class and is the most likely to see the field. I did a scouting report on him a couple months back if you want to check that out.
Virdel Edwards and Vonzell Kelly are two players that I haven’t gotten a chance to check out yet. Both of these players are three stars according to 247sports.
Leader of the Pack
After transferring from Trinity Valley Community College, Eisworth almost instantly became the league’s biggest badass at safety. He averaged 7.3 (87 total) tackles per game ,which led the team, and recorded 4 tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, five pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. Unsurprisingly, Eisworth was named Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year and First-Team All-Big 12.
Eisworth doesn’t really have a weakness in his game, and his elite his range and deep coverage make him one of the most versatile defenders in the game. He’s one of those players that just always ends up near the ball on virtually every play anywhere on the field, no matter where he started the play.
After primarily occupying a true safety position last season, Eisworth is moving to the safety/corner/linebacker hybrid-STAR position that D’Andre Payne played so well for the past few seasons. This will allow him some more freedom of movement, and will put him closer to the line of scrimmage, where he can more immediately affect run plays and rush the passer.
Lewis is one of the best stories on the entire team. As a walk-on freshman, he earned the Special Teams Scout Team Player of the Year, then went on to earn playing time as a reserve in his freshman and sophomore seasons. Lewis from started day one last season while still not being on scholarship, and asserted himself as a leader in the secondary and finally earned his scholarship this past offseason.
Last season, Lewis was fourth on the team in tackles with 70, including four for loss, and one sack. His pass coverage stats are the most impressive, as he led the team in interceptions with three (which came in three consecutive games), while also defending five passes.
On the first depth chart, Lewis was listed as an “OR” with Justin Bickham and Tory Spears for the starting strong safety spot. My bet would be that he wins the competition, but even if he doesn’t, the redshirt senior will make an impact on the team regardless.
Another returning starter from last season, White recorded 50 tackles last season, 2.5 for loss, and one sack. He also defended one pass from the free safety position.
White was another player who is very good over the middle and generally plays really well in zone coverage. He rarely gets the chance to break up passes or make an interception due to the position he plays, but he does a good job when the ball is thrown his way.
Like Eisworth, White is a junior and this will be his second season getting a lot of playing time, so I’m excited to see how much he grows from last season. His biggest area of growth will be in preventing big plays over the top (not dissimilar from Kamari Cotton-Moya).
Richard Bowens III
A redshirt sophomore who saw a lot of time on special teams last season. He is the backup free safety to Lawrence White and will see a lot of snaps as a reserve this season. I don’t know much about his game because his only start came against Drake in the worst game of the century. However, I’ve heard nothing but good things about his game and his work ethic so I’m excited to see him play.
This is a position group that has a star in Greg Eisworth, followed a handful of solid-to-good players, from Braxton Lewis and Lawrence White down to the new guys. There’s depth all over the board that will allow Jon Heacock and D.K. McDonald to be flexible and creative in their personnel decisions. The obvious consistency and trust between the players and coaches allows Jon Heacock to dial up pressure packages that disrupt the offense without having to sacrifice downfield coverage.
As the veterans get better, the youngsters will only get more comfortable. Because of that, this unit is going to get deeper and the variety of play calling should increase. This means more safety blitzes, which are my favorite thing on the defense.
As long as everyone stays healthy, 2019 should be another positive year on the back end of the Cyclone defense.