AMES — The words “instant starter" enticed 2013 junior college defensive player of the year Demond Tucker to come to Iowa State, but he knew they’d only mean something if he strode into Ames with a win-the-job mentality.
Nothing would — nor should — be handed to the widely-lauded defensive tackle looking to improve a Cyclone football team smarting from two straight losing seasons.
It’s earn it or sit time and so far, so good for the highly-motivated Mississippian.
“All I’m working on right now is my technique and working on getting faster,” Tucker said early in spring practice. Taking more coaching so I can know everything about it.”
All signs point to Tucker snaring at least the second part of that two-word phrase eventually.
The Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College star is a tad undersized at 6-0, but he’s pushed his weight to 287, all without losing his trademark incendiary playing style.
“Just his bounce and athleticism, you see a little bit different than some of the guys we have in there right now,” ISU coach Paul Rhoads said earlier this month.
Tucker’s goal is to make enough of an impact to create a ripple effect, making the Cyclones’ defense — starting up front — a strength of the team.
That hasn’t been the case for a while. ISU ranked last (125th) among FBS teams in total defense last season, allowing an average of 528.9 yards per game.
Sacks? The Cyclones were 112th, at 1.25 per game and lost leader Cory Morrissey to graduation.
Rushing defense? ISU checked in at 120th, allowing 246.3 yards on the ground per game.
To improve dramatically, a front-to-back approach is required.
A revival up front doesn’t necessarily start with potential impact JUCO transfers such as Tucker and Bobby Leath (who is slated to arrive this summer), but it stops if their development fails to keep pace as spring fades toward fall.
“Work hard, study hard and make plays,” defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “It’s that simple. Football’s not that complicated. You’ve got to go out there and learn how to play techniques and you’ve got to go out there and learn how to tackle. … t’s not that hard. It’s a hard job, but it’s not hard to learn. If you can make plays then it becomes second nature.”
Burnham’s son, Shane, is working hard to ensure Tucker (now) and Leath (later) get to that point.
He’s excited about their formidable upside, but doesn’t sugarcoat the learning curve, either.
“We’ve known Bobby for a long time,” Shane Burnham said. “Demond Tucker — if Demond, if he was here right now, you’d say, ‘Well Demond’s a little bit undersized as far as his length, his height. I’m firmly convinced if my man Demond Tucker was about two inches taller, the amount of traffic we would have had to fight to land (him) — I think some people saw the measurables and said, ‘We want bigger.’ I saw the player on tape. The player I saw on tape was the player I saw last spring in person. That same player is the kid I saw when I went down there in September to see him. I just think, man, this guy, he really plays with his butt on fire. Just a high-high motor. And I think if you’re going to be bit undersized, which he is, admittedly, you’d better bring some of that to make up for it. He does it.”
And it shows on the practice field … sometimes.
“The first pursuit drill we ran, he took off and was really running fast, not just quick, but fast,” Rhoads said. “We know he’s quick and explosive, but he was running fast. That’s about a 40-yard sprint and we don’t have the type of guys (on the line) that can cover that kind of ground that can look very pretty. He did. The second snap of that, not so pretty. And that’s a product of him not pushing himself hard enough in the offseason stuff that we just got accomplished. So lesson learned. ‘Oh, that really does apply to the football field, coach.’
Tucker’s determined to keep absorbing the knowledge from coaches that could turn him into a high-impact player.
An instant starter he is not.
A starter for the Sept. 5 season opener against Northern Iowa? Bet on it.
“I feel like I bring a lot more to the D-line because I’m the type of player where I don’t just sit there and play with them,” Tucker said. “I go get it. When I see the ball, if I see him going across, I’m gone. I try to be a pursuit player.”