Eli Rasheed knew something would need to change for Iowa State’s defensive line after he watched film of the other teams in the Big 12. The Cyclones had to get faster, stronger and perhaps most importantly, they needed to be in better shape.
Rasheed started to push guys to slim down – so they did. Reigning Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Demond Tucker shed a few pounds. Defensive end Jhaustin Thomas did too. Then, other guys in the group started to buy-in.
“After going through and watching the film of the Big 12, you know, it’s a sideways game, it’s a down the field game,” Rasheed said after practice on Monday. “It’s a tempo offense that makes your conditioning and your ability to run and get after the football so huge in this league. So our defensive linemen at the same time got to be strong enough to hold up against the run, quick enough to rush the passer and then fast enough to get to the ball.”
Tucker excelled during his first season at Iowa State, but conditioning was a problem most of the season. He wasn’t able to stay on the field for long stretches of time. The 6-foot, 295-pound, Copiah-Lincoln Community College product pushed himself harder during the summer conditioning program. He started to watch what he was eating. All of it in the name of staying on the field.
“I’m down for losing some pounds. So them wanting me to be that size, I’m able to work with it,” Tucker said. “I feel like I can move more. I feel lean so it (has) helped me out in all purposes.”
Monday was Tucker’s first time on the practice field of the fall. He battled the flu the week before fall camp which caused the coaches to take things slow. He stood on the sidelines and watched the first four days of camp.
Once No. 97 hit the field, he was able to showcase the other area of his game that he looked to improve during the summer — his leadership.
“I think what he’s really doing well is that he’s humbling himself and really trying to be more of a leader to our group,” Rasheed said. “Very vocal today encouraging guys on effort, encouraging guys on technique. So I would say that’s the one way that he’s grown, just that maturity and that leadership that we need so much up front.”
Thomas battled the conditioning issues all season long last year, too. He wasn’t ever able to fully get in the groove after arriving on campus right before the start of fall camp.
It showed on the field. Thomas made an impact in the eight games he played in, but he never really stood out like everyone expected. Many would look at his 15 tackles and one sack from last season and say disappointment.
Rasheed is hoping improved conditioning and lost pounds can change that in 2016.
“Jhaustin Thomas has done a great job. He’s got his weight down. Still not where he needs to be in the conditioning world. We’re trying to get him up to where maybe he can play 25, 30 plays,” Rasheed said. “He’s definitely going to be on the field on third down. I think he’s a pretty good presence out there at end and rushing the passer. You know, we’ve just got to get a little more plays out of him.”
Finding the field will be about more than just conditioning for Thomas. He’s battling with redshirt junior J.D. Waggoner for the starting spot at defensive end. Senior Mitchell Meyers is in the mix for playing time there, as well.
“There’s some competition at end. There’s some competition,” Rasheed said. “JD is doing a great job, you know, he’s a guy that’s going to be really solid. Going to be a no (missed assignments). Jhaustin Thomas is competing because he has the size and the ability to rush the passer and then Mitchell Meyers is also competing for that defensive end. So after the first scrimmage we’ll see how all of them do but there’s a great competition at that end spot.”
All of it comes back to finding those guys that can be strong enough to stop the run, quick enough to rush the passer and fast enough to run to the ball. Do all that, plus do your job, and Rasheed will be happy.
With the help of some dropped pounds, the Cyclone defensive linemen are trying to oblige.
“I trust everybody on defense so I trust in my brothers,” Tucker said. “I know they’re going to do their job. I’m going to give my all, they’re going to give their all. We going to try to win more games this year.”