By Ian Smith, Cyclonefanatic.com Contributor
The Iowa State defense wants to set a tone this season and it starts up the middle.
While new linebackers A.J. Klein, Jake Knott and Matt Tau’fo’ou have received a majority of the ink during fall camp, the defensive tackles will play just as vital of a role in the Cyclones success in 2010. Just ask defensive tackles coach Shane Burnham.
“In any sport, if you are good down the middle, you have a shot,” Burnham said. “(The defensive tackles) have a done a great job in camp of holding up against double teams and letting the backers run through and make plays. They are going up against some pretty good (offensive lineman) at practice.”
Gone are starters Austin Alburtis and Nate Frere from last year’s squad. In their place are Jake McDonough at tackle, and Stephen Ruempolhamer and Bailey Johnson at nose guard.
“It’s been a good camp,” Burnham said. “I think we’ve developed a long way since this time last year. We understand the scheme better. We look like different people moving around.”
McDonough is a different player
By all accounts, McDonough is a completely different player than he was a season ago. For starters, he is healthy after battling a serious stomach ailment early in the 2009 campaign. During that time, he lost more than 50 pounds. Now, the Des Moines native is ready for a full season in the trenches.
“Jake physically is 50, 60, 70 pounds heavier, or whatever it was, than last year,” Burnham said. “You can tell he has more lead in his pencil when he’s out there playing. He is not getting pushed around as much.”
Burnham and the rest of the Iowa State coaches are excited to see McDonough take the next step – literally. Listed at 6-foot-5, 288-pounds, the sophomore hasn’t lost any speed with the added weight.
“It hasn’t affected his first two steps at all,” Burnham said. “He is more explosive. The biggest thing we have to clean up with Jake is his steps. He’s a long guy. He gets too big of a step off the ball sometimes – too elongated. He gets his chest over grass and doesn’t always bring his feet. That’s something we are working with all our guys."
“(Jake) is as long as any offensive guard or tackle we play against, so they have a hard time getting to his body when he plays with a good pad level.”
The battle at nose guard
In the latest depth chart released by Iowa State, Ruempolhamer – who Burnham calls “Dutch,” and Johnson are co-starters at the nose guard position. The Cyclones will need both of them against their tough Big 12 schedule.
“When you look at Dutch and Bailey, those are two guys who have played and played Big 12 snaps,” Burnham said. “You feel like you can put them in there and they can succeed.”
Ruempolhamer in particular has impressed coaches in camp.
“Dutch, I’ll tell you what, if you ask Ben Lamaak or some of our other offensive guys, he’s a stump in there right now,” Burnham said. “He’s hard to move out. He has a great pad level. That’s something Jake and Bailey need to do better.”
Behind McDonough, Johnson and Ruempolhamer, Cleyon Laing, Taylor Mansfield, Walter Woods and Jerrod Black are in the mix. Depth is still an issue for Iowa State Burnham said, but the players are working hard to improve before kickoff, Sept. 2 against Northern Illinois.
“In the run game, they’ve learned how to come off the ball – get their feet in the ground,” Burnham said “The biggest thing is playing with hands – inside hands win up front. Last year, I don’t we were ever able to grasp what we wanted to do coming off the ball.”
Scrimmage set for Saturday
The goal in Saturday’s full-squad scrimmage is simple – get better. Specifically, the defense wants to create some of the big plays that helped them become one of the best red zone teams in the country last year.
The Cyclones also are looking to create a personality as the season approaches.
“I think we need to continue to establish an identity,” Burnham said. “We are a young defense. You talk about our linebackers, some of the young kids that haven’t played; we have an identity to forge. Hopefully, that shows itself a little bit on Saturday."