NOTEBOOK: Matt Leo’s time to shine is now, Kyle Kempt at “90-95 percent”

Oct 27, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones defensive end Matt Leo (89) tackles Texas Tech Red Raiders wide receiver De’Quan Bowman (8) at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Red Raiders 40-31. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Sixty-two.

That’s the number of snaps Iowa State backup defensive end Matt Leo played in last Saturday’s 40-31 win over Texas Tech.

  Starter Enyi Uwazurike had left the game early with what turned out to be a season-ending leg injury, so Leo stepped in and swiftly shouldered the sizable workload.

“I think Matt has really played good football this year,” said Cyclones coach Matt Campbell, who’s surging team (4-3, 3-2) faces Kansas at 11 a.m. Saturday in Lawrence. “You talk about the same consistency that Enyi has brought — and, again, I think if you ask anybody in our defensive staff room, Enyi has been tremendous, but Matt has probably been step-in-step with him in his play all season long. I thought it showed on Saturday. He gets, I want to say, 62 reps in the game Matt played — him and (fellow defensive end) JaQuan (Bailey). Matt didn’t miss a beat.”

 Leo, a former construction plumber from Australia, is used to tackling heavy-duty tasks.

 After seeing action primarily on special teams in 2017, the JUCO transfer’s speed and off the edge became a formidable weapon this season.

 Leo, a 6-7, 276-pound junior, crunched Akron’s quarterback for his first career sack in ISU’s first win of the season.

 He added another tackle for loss in the victory at Oklahoma State and his approach to the game can be summed up in three simple words.

 “I like to hit,” Leo told my Cyclone Fanatic colleague, Jared Stansbury, last season.

 It shows.

“I think what Matt has done probably more than anything over the last year is really (become) confident in his play and what’s being asked of him, what his responsibilities are and then playing to it,” Campbell said. He’s done a great job and obviously now that workload is only going to go up a lot for him, but I think he’s ready to handle those duties.”

 So does everyone in the program.

 Leo impressed everyone last season with his body and quick-twitch raw talent.

 Now that he’s honed his game, he could provide quality depth. Now he’ll fill in as a starter on a D-line that’s defined as much by its depth as it is by its frontline role in the Big 12’s best rushing defense.

 “The biggest piece of it is that Enyi was playing good football for us,” Campbell said. “You hate to see a young guy that’s playing his first full season as a starter get that season cut short. I do think for our football team, it is an area we have good depth amongst that group. We’ll have to ask Matt Leo to step up in a more critical role, Spencer Benton, continue to flourish for us like he has all season and then what combination steps up? Will (Kamilo) Tongamoa step up and play for us more? Zach Petersen is a young freshman that has gotten a lot of playing time over the last couple of weeks. It’ll be interesting to see what we do with that and what happens. We’re fortunate that that is an area that we do have depth.”

 It’s paid dividends — even as standout players have had to sit.

 That’s where star D-tackle Ray Lima found himself for the win against West Virginia.

 A concussion kept him on the sidelines, where he cheered on teammate Jamahl Johnson, who thrived in an expanded role.

 “I love that whole room and I love that guy too,” Lima said. “So to see him go out there, it wasn’t a surprise for me. As far as having to sit, it was more rewarding for me to see my guys playing. I just had a lot of fun. I didn’t think about myself. It was great to see our guys go after it that week.”

 Now Leo gets to get after it a bit more.

 And Lima’s certain his entire D-line room — and the full team — will rally around Uwazurike, lifting his spirits by not missing a beat as he watches from the sidelines.

 “That’s probably one of the biggest things right now,” Lima said. “One of our brothers is down, so I think the mentality is the next one has to step up and do right by him and coming out and competing and doing the best job he can do.”


 It’s been a long road back from a season-opening MCL injury for ISU captain and sixth-year senior quarterback Kyle Kempt.

 He said Tuesday that at one point he had resigned himself to not being healthy enough to play again — until rapid progress the last few weeks accelerated the mending process.

“It’s been very tough, honestly,” said Kempt, who set a new ISU standard for single-season completion percentage (66.1) last season. “Just kind of going through several different stages of that. Not thinking I’d even be back at all and then finally making progress.”

 Campbell reiterated that Kempt could have played against Texas Tech and added that he’s “he’s somewhere in the 90-95-percent range” in terms of health.

Kempt is currently listed as true freshman Brock Purdy’s backup — and whether he plays football for the Cyclones again or not doesn’t mean his impact on the team has diminished.

 “I know I said this two weeks ago and I think the greatest story in our football program is Kyle Kempt,” Campbell said. “It’s really simple from our end. Who he is, what he’s been — maybe the best captain that I’ve ever been around in terms of putting the team first.”


 ISU’s coach said Kansas running back Pooka Williams compares favorably to many of the great backs in the Big 12.

 How favorably?

 “Quite honestly, I think he’s one of the elite playmakers in our conference,” Campbell said of Williams, who’s averaging 6.6 yards per carry and has six total touchdowns (four rushing, two receiving). “You talk about spacial football players, he’s as good as I’ve seen so far. We’ve played some really good ones this year and I think he’s right up there with any of the great ones that we’ve played. I think the misconception is it’s just (his) speed. He’s got the ability to transition that speed to power really fast and I think that’s what makes him really dangerous.”


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.