AMES — Demond Tucker’s never been shy about shooting for the stars.
It simply doesn’t matter that being tagged as “undersized” forced his game underground — off the radar for a number of highly successful college football programs largely because he’s listed as 6-feet tall instead of 6-2 or 6-3.
Bottom line: He’s at Iowa State now and plans to punch well above his height.
“I’m blessed to even play, so right now I’m going to try to set big goals for myself,” said the 6-0, 287-pound junior college transfer who’s been taking No. 1 snaps at nose guard in spring practice. “I hope to get up there. I hope to be, probably — I’m aiming for the player of the year again, so that’s my aiming point.”
A precocious — even preposterous — goal for an “undersized” guy unfamiliar with the rigors of the Big 12?
Maybe, but Tucker’s 2013 NJCAA Defensive Player of the Year honor speaks to his potential and tenacity.
And his hands … When he gets an opponent in his clutches, nasty things can happen.
“He’s extremely twitched up,” defensive tackles coach Shane Burnham said. “Like I said when we signed him, I had a chance to see him (last) spring, going into his sophomore year of junior college. I got a chance to see him play last fall and everything that was on tape was verified. … This joker can get his hands to you. He can come out of his hips — and the term I use is ‘heavy-handed.’ Like when he put his hands on me when we’re drilling, it’s like (former ISU all-Big 12 defensive tackle Jake) McDonough. It shocks me.”
That’s high praise. It’s no secret that McDonough transformed himself into one of Burnham’s favorites, earning first-team all-Big 12 honors in 2012.
He’s much taller (6-5) than Tucker, but Burnham sees similarities in terms of having a deep impact on plays.
“Much smaller body type, much more athletic body type,” Burnham said of Tucker, who totaled 22.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss in his two seasons at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College. “Jake was a great pusher. You didn’t see Jake finish a ton. If you went back and looked at Jake’s stats, you wouldn’t see a lot of TFLs, sacks, pressures. Jake affected plays, didn’t finish many plays. I think Demond’s got the ability to affect — he’s smaller, and he’s got to play with better technique, probably than Jake did because he’s shorter and smaller, but he’s much more athletic, as far as quickness, loose hips and those kinds of things.”
If Tucker can have a McDonough-sized impact this season, a ripple effect would ensue. He plans on creating it, turning ripples to waves in the process.
“All the people that doubted me, I want to just make this huge impact and just say, ‘Well, now I’m here and I love this school,” Tucker said. “I’m going to show them how I can bring this school back and bring pressure off the D-line.”
He’ll need help, of course. Burnham said the battle at 3-technique defensive tackle has been fierce.
Currently, the most experienced among that trio — Devlyn Cousin — tops the depth chart, but he’s liked what he’s seen from oft-injured Pierre Aka, who continues to pack on weight and show glimpses of play-altering promise.
“Pierre’s 313 now, so he’s got more lead in his pencil,” Burnham said. “He’s holding his ground. Still want to see him more consistent and more violent, but he’s certainly holding his ground.”
Burnham’s cautiously optimistic that 2014” JUCO transfer Terry Ayeni can make significant contributions, as well. Ayeni (6-2, 278) missed all of last season and needed knee surgery, which has hampered his development on the practice field and in the weight room.
“What I’ve really got to get Terry to do is bend, get back with his knee,” Burnham said.
Of course there’s a wild card coming for the D-line, too. That’s JUCO transfer Bobby Leath, who is slated to arrive on campus this summer and compete for key snaps.
“I’ve seen him play this fall; I saw him in high school,” Burnham sad. “I feel like I know exactly what I’m getting in Bobby Leath when you see it and verify it with your own eyes. So I’m excited. Can’t wait for him to get here.”
Tucker simply cannot wait for the 2015 season to arrive.
He’s on a mission and the number one objective is shoring up a defensive interior that’s struggled mightily since McDonough and Cleyon Laing closed their Cyclone careers in 2012.
“I know a lot of people are counting on me and I feel like I can do a great job here, but I don’t let that get into my ear and try to get the big head and then try to act like I’m (better) than anybody,” Tucker said. “I’m the same player as the next person alongside of me. I try to do more and I try to lead them. I take coaching, I try to coach them up. We’re learning by each other.”
*Jordan Harris has emerged as the front-runner at the No. 1 MIKE linebacker in spring camp, as expected. He redshirted last season.
*Secondary coach Maurice Linguist has been impressed by JUCO transfer Jomal Wiltz, who’s trying to carve out a niche at cornerback. “I want to say through nine or 10 practices, Jomal Wiltz has about 18 pass breakups,” Linguist said. “We track them every single day.”
*Redshirt freshman Brian Peavy has worked himself into the mix at corner, as well. While soon-to-be three-year starter Nigel Tribune mans one spot and Sam E. Richardson likely will get the nod on the other side, Peavy’s turned heads with his nose for the football and athletic ability. “I’m a Brian Peavy fan,” Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads said. “Brian Peavy practices hard. Brian Peavy practices intense. Brian Peavy learns. Brian Peavy’s capable of making plays — and he has made plays on the practice field, whether it be special teams or defensive football in the run game or the pass game.”