We continue this week’s column of positional breakdowns, as we visit the locker room of the safety group.
Gone is former walk-on turned starter Braxton Lewis and reliable, but maybe not so dependable Justin Bickham. Lewis was the perfect center fielder who could roam the field with his eyes fixated on the quarterback, and ended the season fourth on the team in tackles.
Bickham (an offseason transfer) was not afforded the time to master Jon Heacock’s scheme, and therefore played out of position at times. He made a few key stops in big games, but all in all, did not have the type of impact we expected.
Both were solid role players last year, but looking ahead to 2020 there is a ton of talent returning.
A name that has been flying off the hype shelves is Isheem Young. The redshirt freshman has yet to see the field, but has been raved about by this staff continuously. In the clubhouse, he has been whispered to be the starting strong safety come game one. We will see what the Philadelphia native has in store for us shortly.
Three more safeties signed letters of intent to play with the Cyclones in 2019, and have added needed depth to a position filled with multiple upcoming graduating seniors. You have all seen it – Coach Campbell loves competition, and he will not be afraid to play a freshman over an upperclassman. Those true freshmen are Craig McDonald, Mason Chambers, and Jordyn Morgan. All three stand 6-feet or taller, and carry the multiplicity that makes Campbell giddy at night.
LEADER OF THE PACK
Aside from QB1, this is the easiest choice to make amongst position groups. I will go out on a limb here and say (if healthy) Greg Eisworth will be an All-American in 2020. This defense is greater than the sum of its parts, but no key is more important to the cog than Mr. Eisworth. It was evident in 2019 when he was hampered with shoulder (and other) injuries - this team lost a step. He is truly a jack-of-all-trades playmaker, and the STAR position was made for him. Look for a big year out of #12.
Lawrence White filled those shoes admirably in Eisworth’s absence of the Texas game, and had himself a quietly productive 2019 season. As the leading returning tackler, he is the shoe-in for the free safety spot, and will continue to stick his nose in there for turnovers. God only knows, the pendulum has to swing back at some point – and this defense needs to get more takeaways.
Some other names to chew on – Arnold Azunna, who started his career as a cornerback, but can play multiple safety spots, D.J. Miller, who started fast in 2019, but by year end was riding the pine due to missed assignments, and Virdell Edwards, who will be a redshirt freshman.
The only wildcard is none other than true freshman TJ Tampa, who is actually listed as an ATHLETE on the roster, and is thought of as a future wide receiver. But, as he showed us on his high school tape, can play on the defensive side of the ball too; and at 6-foot-2 might be better served as a safety than cornerback. You never know what this staff might be cooking up for us!
Led by position coach D.K. McDonald, I expect another strong year from the safety group. Led by do-it-all Greg Eisworth, look for a more aggressive mentality at taking the ball away via exotic blitz packages and more hats flying to the ball on downfield passes.
Isheem Young will have his work cut out for him, but is flanked by two senior studs and a capable backup in Azunna. I expect Iowa State to be in the top third of pass defense yet again, but if they want to take the next step – the takeaways will have to start falling off the turnover tree.