AMES — Wesson, Mississippi encompasses 4.4 square miles.
It teemed with activity as a mill town until the turn of the 20th century, nestled within the southern-most slice of the Magnolia State.
Now it houses the main campus of Copiah-Lincoln Community College — and somehow managed to contain the twin talents of Jordan Harris and Demond Tucker, who prowled the field with the Wolfpack in 2013.
Harris, the nation’s leading tackler that season, headed 900 miles north to Iowa State in 2014 and unexpectedly redshirted.
“It was kind of frustrating, but I knew the coaches had a reason for that,” said Harris, who has risen to the No. 1 MIKE spot this spring. “They wouldn’t bring me here for no reason, no purpose. I think they wanted to redshirt me for the future of this team.”
He’s right. Tucker, the 2013 NJCAA Defensive Player of the Year, followed his friend north this winter.
“He’s every bit as explosive and quick — and what we call heavy with his hands,” Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads said of Tucker, who totaled 23 sacks in two seasons at Co-Lin. “When he puts his hands on you, you know it. He moves a body when he does that.”
Together again, Harris and Tucker plan to shove ISU’s defense back onto the right track. It won’t be easy, but they’ll have each other, along with dozens of like-minded teammates intent on proving last season’s last-in-the-nation total defense numbers (528.9 yards per game) are a thing of the past, not a sign of things to come.
“I’m playing faster,” said Harris, who spent last season becoming an astute student of the game. “Way faster. And that comes from knowledge. The more you know about the defense, the faster you’ll play.”
Harris and Tucker grew up about 160 miles apart, but became fast, productive friends at Co-Lin. They’ll play together in Saturday’s spring game, at home in their new surroundings, eager for fall to arrive.
“Feels like the old days,” Harris said of playing behind the stout, but quick Tucker. “We’re just back at it like we used to be, out there having fun, flying around.”
Taking flight started with slow, steady steps on terra firma.
When Harris arrived in Ames, he expected his frenetic style of play to translate well to a Big 12 defense. It didn’t — not right away. Hence the redshirt year, which defensive coordinator Wally Burnham stuffed with extra film sessions and deep journeys into the playbook.
“I learned a lot,” Harris said. “I learned about how offenses scheme, little details that a MIKE linebacker or any linebacker has to pay attention to. You can’t just be out there running to the football. You’ve got to have a purpose for running to the football.”
In other words, tackles don’t become tackles by sheer athleticism alone. It’s a lesson every player has to learn, whether they move up to the FBS level straight from high school or via the JUCO route.
“In junior college you could just fly around to the football and make 14, 15 tackles a game,” Harris said. “But here,you’ve got to do your job. You’ve got to do your job, because if you’re not doing your job it can be a touchdown for the offense, so you’ve just got to be in the right spot. The tackles will come as long as you’re in the right spot.”
Harris had skilled teachers that stretched from the coaches’ offices to nearby lockers.
His main tutor: Jevohn Miller, who needed time to learn and grow within Burnham’s defense before the light fully came on, then was snuffed out by a knee injury his senior season.
“He kind of went through the same thing I went through,” Harris said. “He just said, ‘Keep on pushing. you came this far, you didn’t come this far for nothing.’ That’s what he’d always tell me, so I just took that and ran with it.”
Baby steps. Running. Flying. Harris has fully digested the instruction manual. Now it’s time to put his knowledge into practice.
“He’s what we saw on tape when he was just running to the football every snap,” Burnham said. “When he got here, assignments and things like that and knowing what this meant and all those kind of things — he had to make an adjustment mentally. He’s always been a physical kid. He’s a pretty good load out there when he gets after a ball carrier. So we’ve been real pleased. He’s improved in all areas: pass coverage, run, getting in the right run gaps, all those kind of things.”
Harris plans to demonstrate that on Saturday (and, more importantly, on Saturdays in the fall). He’s come a long way, in terms of physical distance and football intelligence, and wants to show coaches, teammates and fans the following:
“That I know what I’m doing,” Harris said. “I’m playing faster. I’m listening to Wally’s perspective on the things I need to do. I just want to show them I’m a better player than I was — a way better player than I was last year.”