Spring Football: Top defensive storylines

By Chris Williams, Publisher

Spring football practice begins next Tuesday for your Iowa State Cyclones. Second-year head coach Paul Rhoads now has the chore of replacing seven members from last year’s starting defense.

Here are a few of the key storylines to watch this spring on that side of the football.

Youth at linebacker

There’s no doubt that replacing All-Big 12 linebacker Jesse Smith’s 135 tackles and two interceptions will be tough for the 2010 Cyclones. But with a capable group of young guys stepping in, coming up with a way to replace Smth’s intangibles will more than likely be Iowa State’s biggest challenge.

Who will step up to be that leader in the linebacking unit? Stay tuned.

Iowa State’s 2010 linebacker unit will be full of raw talent. As of today, sophomores A.J. Klein (SAM) and Jake Knott (WILL) have been penciled into the starting lineup along with senior (MLB) Matt Tau’fo’ou.

Experience will be a major issue for this part of the defense. But they’re an extremely talented group. That has the coaching staff excited.

“Both of those kids (Klein and Knott) did a great job last year of developing and coming along as football players. They know how to work and don’t mind working hard,” defensive coordinator Wally Burnham told me in February. “They have some talent. They are talented enough to play in the Big 12 Conference and win. We are looking forward to developing those two guys, along with Matt Tau’fo’ou in the middle.”

As freshmen, Klein and Knott recorded 17 and 23 tackles respectively. On the spring’s opening depth chart, Klein was listed at 6-foot-1, 237-pounds. Knott is at 6-foot-2, 237-pounds.

“They’ll have growing pains,” Burnham said. “They are going to have to learn on the run a little bit. They will be capable of adding speed to that position. They’ll add athletic ability. They are smart guys who understand football. They will take a lot of reps and they’ll know what we are trying to get done.”

Getting pressure on the quarterback

In 2009, Iowa State ranked dead last in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and 11th in total defense. Don’t you all go pointing your fingers at the secondary though. It was pretty simple as to why Iowa State struggled against the pass so much last season.

Nobody got any pressure on the quarterback. Christopher Lyle led the team in sacks with five. He’s gone. Iowa State’s 2009 defense only sacked the quarterback 16 times.

As you’d expect, improving this area of the defense will be one of the top priorities for the Cyclones this spring.

It all starts at the defensive end position. The best news for Iowa State is an injury that plagued the defense a season ago. Rashawn Parker’s medical red-shirt allows him to come back for another season and he’ll get the nod at right end. Who will be opposite of him on the left side? Do you have a coin to flip?

Last season, Patrick Neal and Roosevelt Maggitt split the duties after Parker went down. Here are your options. Neal is the smarter, more consistent football player. Maggitt is more athletic and has more upside.

“The one thing that I want to see out of those two is competition,” said defensive line coach Curtis Bray. “I want to see those guys compete. I really want to see Roosevelt compete for that job. I don’t know if I felt like he competed. He just kind of assumed that it was Patrick’s job. I want to see him compete for that job.”

Neal recorded 15 tackles and one sack last season. Maggitt had 14 and one.

Other players at the defensive end position will be red-shirt freshman Aaron Moore and Cleyon Laing.

As far as Parker’s injury status goes, the staff plans on taking it slow.

“We know what he is coming back for. That is the season. Not spring ball or camp,” Bray said. “He has played enough football where reps aren’t as big as timing and shaking rust off. We just need to be smart with him.”

The defensive tackle and nose guard positions are a lot like the one end slot. They’re wide open. Right now, seniors Austin Alburtis and Bailey Johnson are listed as starters but don’t be surprised if Jake McDonough, Taylor Mansfield, Stephen Ruempolhamer and Jerrod Black give them a run for their money.

Also, expect the staff to do some experimenting with Laing on the interior part of the line.

Regardless of who is lining up for Iowa State on the defensive line, it will once again all come down to making opposing quarterbacks feel uncomfortable.

“The biggest problem that defensive linemen have when rushing the passer is that they end up looking at the quarterback. They just try to see it and go there but they have to make moves,” Bray said. “You can’t just walk up to an offensive lineman and stop your feet. You can tell a good d-lineman and if he is going to get pressure just by watching his lower body. Does he keep his feet progressive to the quarterback? I think that we got better at getting up the field and progressing. They just need to be a lot more consistent with what we are trying to do. They have to have a lot more confidence in themselves. You also have to be a smart player with everything that you do and take some chances every once in a while.”

The free safety position

David Sims was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the year in 2009. Sims recorded 88 tackles and five interceptions. He was phenomenal on the field and the coaches tell me that he’s one of the hardest workers off the field as well. Sims will be back at the strong safety for Iowa State in 2010.

Now that James Smith is gone, finding a free safety to lineup beside Sims will be a big story this spring.

Senior Michael O’Connell is the early leader at the position. At 5-foot-11, 207-pounds, O’Connell’s football IQ is his best trait, as he lacks athleticism. However, when James Smith was suspended last season, O’Connell proved that he could play at the Big 12 level by recording 11 tackles at A&M. He also picked off a crucial pass in Iowa State’s 9-7 win over Nebraska.

Junior Earl Brooks is currently listed at number two for Iowa State at the free safety position. Expect JUCO transfer Durrell Givens to give both men a run when he gets on campus this summer.

There shouldn’t be a whole lot of drama at the cornerback position this spring. Junior Leonard Johnson is a lock at RCB. On the left site, Ter’ran Benton and Jeremy Reeves will duke it out. Benton’s proved before that he is worthy of the spot so I’ll go ahead and label him as my front-runner. Reeves and Jaques Washingtonwill hope to be in the mix.

Keep an eye on the name Anthony Young though. The 5-foot-8, 174-pound JUCO junior should be in the conversation as well.

“We are going to start him out at corner to see how fast he develops. We have to find a nickel somewhere and he will be a candidate for that position. We are going to probably leave him at corner for the majority of the spring to see how he does,” Burnham said.” He isn’t a big kid but he is a speed guy with great hips, great feet and good ball skills for a DB. We are counting on him a lot.”