AMES — To state the obvious, Iowa State’s situation at defensive tackle heading into 2014 is less than ideal.
During a tumultuous offseason, Paul Rhoads was forced to dismiss two seniors from the program for two different reasons. Rodney Coe, who had turned into an upper-tier defensive lineman by the end of 2013, failed to comply with team rules and simply ran out of chances.
Both of those instances occurred after another senior, Brandon Jensen, had quit the team in December.
The good news here is that Jensen, a 6-foot-5, 301-pound veteran, had a change of heart this summer and chose to come back to the team. He is practicing at full speed and by all means should start on Aug. 30 when the Bison of North Dakota State invade Ames.
To put Iowa State’s youth up front in perspective, Brandon Jensen has started 12 games in his career. The rest of Iowa State’s crew on the interior line is still sitting on a goose egg. This group isn’t a toddler. It is an infant.
With some help from defensive tackles coach Shane Burnahm, let’s go player-by-player and look at the candidates to fill the gaps up front for Iowa State this fall on the interior line.
Brandon Jensen, 6-foot-5, 301-pound senior: Just imagine what this position would have looked like without Jensen, who had 18 tackles and a sack during his junior campaign. In his fifth year with the program, the expectation is that Jensen will be bigger, faster and stronger than ever. The fact that he missed the spring is actually being viewed as a positive right now.
“Obviously he missed out on some reps in the spring but he came back rejuvenated,” Burnham said. “You can tell by just watching him that he has been in battles by the way that he responds to a certain look or a block or something. By the way that he executes a stunt, you can tell that he has done it. For him, it has been maybe a good thing that he is fresh. It looks like he has good legs under him right now.”
There is currently an “or” beside Jensen and sophomore Devlyn Cousin on the depth chart but make no mistake about the fact that barring injury, this Ankeny native will start every game for Iowa State in 2014.
Devlyn Cousin, 6-foot-1, 295-pound sophomore: For the first time since the Rhoads staff got to town, Iowa State is rotating its interior linemen from nose guard and defensive tackle during camp.
“Right now we are double-training everybody,” Burnham said. “In years past, we haven’t necessarily done that. If we can find the right combination, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see both of those guys there at the end of camp.”
Burnham was referencing Jensen and Cousin. These are clearly the top two interior linemen on Iowa State’s roster and both need to be on the field more than the others.
“He has twitched up. He has got that,” Burnham said of Cousin. “What Dev consistently still does not do is play with pad level. When he takes his natural ability with the proper pad level, he is a son of a gun.”
But the others are key as this is football and due to the nature of the position, guys are going to get hurt. That is inevitable.
So what about depth?
Robby Garcia, 6-foot-3, 277-pound redshirt freshman: The fact that Garcia is the No. 1 defensive tackle on Iowa State’s depth chart entering fall camp is alarming. That’s no disrespect to Garcia, a guy who the coaching staff says has shown a ton of progress since the day he stepped foot in Ames. But he is a 277-pound freshman…
“Some guys just have football in them,” Burnham said. “Some guys just understand leverage and the urgency that you need to play with and that nastiness. Some guys get it and some guys take longer to get it. Robby was trained well in high school. He plays with a hard edge about him and he wants to be a great football player.”
Vernell Trent, 6-foot-3, 285-pound redshirt freshman: Like Garcia, the staff has consistently been high on Trent dating back to last summer.
“I said last year that Vernell Trent and Robby Garcia as redshirts – I knew that they wouldn’t play – but in camp last year I bragged on them,” Burnham said. “I just thought they were sons of guns. I said it all of the time. Those kind of guys are what we need.”
Pierre Aka, 6-foot-4, 285-pound sophomore: Perhaps this is the wildcard at this position for Iowa State. Aka, who missed all of 2013 with a shoulder injury, is a sophomore but when it comes to reps, he is basically a redshirt freshman.
“It’s like he is starting at reset,” Burnham said. “Last spring was really the first chance that I’ve had to work with him in 15 straight days and I didn’t think it was great. I think I was honest with you guys then that it wasn’t a great spring. But Pierre worked his hiney off this summer working the sled on his own. He’s been trying to clean up some of those technical issues. The urgency that I am talking about, I am trying to ingrain that to him.”
Aka is currently listed as Garcia’s backup at defensive tackle.
The JUCO’s: Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Wally Burnham noted that junior college transfers Dale Pierson and Trent Taylor had each repped inside. Both men joined the program as defensive ends but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be moved inside due to the massive team need.
“It is kind of what we have done in the past,” Burnham said. “Rodney Coe was recruited as a defensive end. David Irving. We thought he would be a speed package, kind of a 3-technique. They bring athleticism inside but there is a lack of size. But, they just make us more athletic inside.”
Pierson arrived on last week via Pasadena C.C. at 6-foot-2, 260-pounds. Taylor, who comes from Butler C.C., is even smaller at 6-foot-2, 250.
Terry Ayeni, another junior college transfer, was supposed to play right away but the New Mexico Military Institute product tore his ACL before arriving on campus. He will redshirt the 2014 season.
Walk-ons: Remember the names Ma’Kayle Phillips and Tyler Harmeyer. Both walk-ons could be forced to provide depth later in the season. Phillips, a Waterloo (West) product, is notably listed at 330-pounds on Iowa State’s roster.