ISU’s depth on defense fuels short and long-term growth

Oct 14, 2017; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones defensive lineman Jamahl Johnson (92) is held by Kansas Jayhawks offensive lineman Hunter Saulsbury (66) during the third quarter at Jack Trice Stadium. Iowa State beat Kansas 45 to 0. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMESJamahl Johnson felt for his friend.

Last season, he mostly watched as stalwart star defensive tackle Ray Lima played snap after snap most games for a markedly improved Iowa State defense that was still challenged to consistently field quality depth.

That’s not the case anymore — and one of the reasons the Cyclones’ defense continues to impress. 

“There’ll be times where Ray will get tired and then I’ll go in,” said Johnson, who hopes to continue being a key part of ISU’s deep defensive rotation in Saturday’s 11 a.m. (FSN) matchup with Akron at Jack Trice Stadium. “And then I’ll get tired — as soon as coach (Eli Rasheed) sees any type of fatigue, he gets the next guy in. That helps overall with controlling the reps and snaps that guys get, because last year, Ray would get like 70 snaps a game and that’s just really taxing on somebody, especially playing defensive line. Now we split those reps up between me and him and it’s been really beneficial for us.”

Lima — along with the rest of the Cyclones’ defense — nonetheless rose to the occasion last season, but now more seasoned and athletic bodies means fresher front-line players for all four quarters.

It hasn’t yet translated into a win this season for ISU (0-2), but the individual wear-and-tear diminished because of more diverse and “multiple” combinations at each level continues to point to progress in the near and long-term.

“It’s important; we have to,” Cyclones defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “We’ve got a long haul here ahead of us so I think the depth that we have to play with is important. I think those guys as we get along this process, the more guys we can play the better we’re going to be down the stretch — and even in these early games.”

The defense has certainly bowed up in the first two weeks.

Iowa scored one late touchdown to solidify a 13-3 win in week one and No. 5 Oklahoma scored 37 points — 19 below its previous average — in ISU’s 10-point loss to the explosive Sooners last week.

Now the surprising, experienced and opportunistic Zips (2-0) come to town fresh off a defense-fueled 39-34 upset win at Northwestern.

“A big-time Power-5 win last week,” Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell said. “I think what you see is that team is playing with a great sense of belief. I will always say this about coach Bowden’s teams, one of the things I’ve always appreciated playing against his teams is you’re going to get their best shot. They believe in him, they’re always going to play really, really hard, they have big-time athletes. What you see with this group is every critical place that you need a big-time player, they have it. Their quarterback is really improved – he’s a guy that came in and played against us in the fourth quarter. I think he’s really added a huge impact to their football team. He can make all the throws, has the ability to make you miss in space. They have a big-time wide receiver, big-time running back and then on the defensive side, they have almost everybody back.”

Back to the Akron quarterback. Kato Nelson has completed 61 percent of his passes for 509 yards and five touchdowns to one interception. He’s also a threat to run, averaging 40 yards rushing per game in wins over Morgan State and the Wildcats.

So he’s no Kyler Murray by any stretch, but still capable of keeping plays alive with both strong, accurate throws and swift legs.

“Every week we’re gonna face a running quarterback, someone that has some speed back there,” Johnson said.

All the more reason to stay was fresh as possible.

It’s finally an all-hands-on-deck approach for the ISU defense, solely because there are enough elite-level guys to make it so.

 “What we ask of our guys is to run from sideline-to-sideline in pursuit of the football and when you do all that, you need guys,” Heacock said. “It’s been fun to watch them. I think the entire linebacking crew played (against OU). I think most all the secondary played. So a lot of guys.”

And not just “guys,” but players who’ve fully earned time on the field on Saturdays by shining the rest of the week.

“Our coaches, especially coach ‘Sheed, he plays guys that he trusts,” Johnson said of the D-line in particular. “So earning his trust during the week and during practice will correlate to on the field. So if you can show you can do it in practice, you’ll get in the game. Rotation-wise, that’s pretty much how it goes. He puts the guys out there that he can trust.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.