AMES — A smile crossed Demond Tucker’s face at the mere mention of his pal, Jordan Harris.
The two highly-touted junior college prospects and former teammates at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College rekindled a chemistry-based bond as soon as Tucker, a defensive tackle, arrived on campus in January.
Harris, a hard-hitting linebacker who redshirted last season, welcomed him eagerly, and once that first un-padded spring practice began on March 3, the two friends clicked again, making plays while gaining knowledge.
“It’s great,” Tucker, the 2013 JUCO Defensive Player of the Year, said earlier this month. “We talked the whole practice. It’s great.”
Early returns are in on Tucker, Harris and other recent junior college transfers navigating the path from Division I newcomer to potential impact status.
Bottom line: Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads likes what he sees — a lot.
“Most definitely,” Rhoads said Tuesday when asked about JUCO players standing out near the midway point of spring ball. “My first thought was the three (mid-season) newcomers and you’re talking about three different levels of our defense that they’re affecting: Demond up front and Jay Jones at the linebacker level and Jomal Wiltz at corner. Very pleased with the progress of all three of them. I think I can accurately say without hesitation that in our six years — this will be spring seven, huh? This will be our seventh spring — there’s no JC transfers that we’ve had that have looked this sharp through six practices of spring and that’s very exciting. I can’t hide that.”
It’s also very needed.
ISU’s struggles on the defensive side of the ball — really, team-wide coming off a 2-10 season — are well-documented, so adding new, potentially game-ready impact players should stoke also-needed optimism.
Rhoads spotlighted second-year JUCO transfers Dale Pierson and Trent Taylor (both battling for the left defensive end spot in the spring) as others who have been impressive as well.
“(Pierson and Taylor) are showing the progress that you’d expect out of a second-year junior college player,” Rhoads said.
As for Harris, he’s competing for spring snaps at MIKE linebacker with Kane Seeley. Seeley started the final four games of 2014 and totaled 56 tackles last season. Harris needed to redshirt to fully acclimate to the program, but appears ready to contribute now.
“Jordan’s much more comfortable in how he’s playing,” Rhoads said. “He’s playing like a linebacker. He’s not playing like a physical, missile-attack guy, he’s playing like a linebacker and that’s what he never did in his complete first year.”
Another JUCO player who’s made big strides is offensive lineman Wendell Taiese. Players have raved about him being a “monster” this spring and it stands to reason. Taiese is a hulking figure at 6-6, 354. If he can contribute this season beyond sporadic special teams play, the trenches receive a necessary boost in size and strength.
“Wendell Taiese is starting to get recognized as a guy — we know we need him on the field, but he’s starting to look like a guy that needs to be on the field himself,” Rhoads said. “And there’s a difference in that.”