AMES, Iowa — Iowa State’s five-game improvement from 2016 to 2017 can be largely credited to a defense that was stingier by more than 10 points a game.
The Cyclones are hoping to get even better this upcoming season — and there are plenty of reasons to believe they can.
That’s exactly what Iowa State (8-5 in 2017) has been focused on during spring workouts, which end on Saturday with a closed practice. The Cyclones announced Monday that their annual spring game at Jack Trice Stadium was cancelled because of expected bad weather.
Defensive coordinator Jon “Heacock has done a great job of falling into this foundation of what we stand for: players, formations, plays,” third-year coach Matt Campbell said.
“We know who we are now … and I think our kids came in with some real confidence (this spring) in knowing who we are and what we’ve got the ability to do.”
The Cyclones’ success in 2017 started up front, as for the first time in years they generated consistent push up front.
Iowa State has lost a pair of starters in J.D. Waggoner and Vernell Trent, but it might be even deeper along the line in 2018. It’s a group led by returning starters JaQuan Bailey and nose tackle Ray Lima, and one that Campbell said has been the most impressive in the program so far in 2018.
Promising junior college prospect Matt Leo is expected to make an immediate impact after redshirting last fall. The Cyclones also expect more out of another highly touted line prospect, Kamilo Tongamoa, who arrived on campus too late last summer to get himself ready for Big 12 snaps.
“His body has changed. His attitude has changed,” Heacock said of Tongamoa. “He’s made a lot of improvement, and we need him to.”
The Cyclones are also looking for a replacement for Joel Lanning at linebacker.
Lanning’s fascinating backstory — converting from quarterback last spring to become an All-Big 12 defender last fall — drew considerable attention. But it also obscured the fact that linebackers Willie Harvey and Marcel Spears were unexpectedly tremendous a year ago, combining for 183 tackles, including 20 for a loss.
Campbell singled out redshirt freshman linebacker O’Rien Vance on Monday as one of the most improved players in the program this spring, meaning he’s likely first in the competition to replace Lanning if he can finish spring ball with a flourish.
“There’s still a lot of competition there. Obviously, O’Rien is a guy who has done a great job of continuing his development and (getting) much-needed reps that are competitive,” Campbell said.
Though Iowa State won’t return impact safeties Kamari Cotton-Moya and Reggie Wilkerson, cornerbacks Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne should be the cornerstones of a group that has promising depth.
Perhaps the brightest spot for the Cyclones this spring has been the development of transfer safety Greg Eisworth, who started his career at Mississippi before a stint in junior college. Though fellow free safety Jatairis Grant played in all 13 games a year ago, Eisworth appears to be in position for a starting spot when workouts resume in August.
“He’s not a surprise. I think we knew he was going to be a really good player … (but) he’s been really impressive,” Campbell said. “He’s certainly stepped up and done some good things for us.”