ISU junior defensive end JaQuan Bailey in action against Texas Tech. (Photo courtesy Cyclones.com)
AMES — The the tall, thickly-muscled figure toes the edge, then makes a splash.
From there, the 6-2, 251-pound man simply glides, rippling the surface only as he tilts his head for a quick breath.
It’s been a taxing day for that man — Iowa State star defensive end JaQuan Bailey, who turns to bodies of water for stress relief, a sense of peace, and utter calm amid an often chaotic schedule.
“I love to swim,” said Bailey, who enters the Dec. 28 Alamo Bowl matchup with No. 13 Washington State one sack shy of tying Shawn Moorehead’s all-time Cyclone record. “I love the ocean, the pool. I’m like a full-fledged Michael Phelps type. Seriously.”
Best believe the quirky and powerful junior — in spirit, anyway.
Bailey’s been a revelation for a constantly-improving ISU defense ever since joining the team three seasons ago.
He chose Matt Campbell’s Cyclones over offers from Florida and Virginia Tech, among others.
And for some time, it appeared he’d end up with the Hokies, but Bailey said Campbell and his staff made a big impression — and not just on him.
“The more I saw, the more humble and just excited coach Campbell, (linebackers coach Tyson) Veidt, (defensive line) coach (Eli) Rasheed — all those guys were,” said Bailey, who has 17.5 career sacks, including seven this season. “Then I saw the way my whole family — they just loved Campbell, Coach Rasheed and Coach Veidt. So it was like a really, really easy decision.”
Also easy: playing Bailey from darn near day one.
He’s started 32 consecutive games — which trails only seniors Brian Peavy (46) and Willie Harvey (41) on the defense.
His pass-rushing talent was evident immediately and he’s grown into a solid run stopper, as well.
But Bailey’s biggest improvement has come with maturity.
“JaQuan didn’t have to grow up as a football player,” Campbell said. “JaQuan had to grow up as (to) what’s it mean to be a great teammate? What’s it mean to take my great football ability and play within the concept of 11 as one? I think he’s grown as much as anybody in our program with that and he may say this or he may not: (then-senior) J.D. Waggoner a year ago, I think, was a huge turning point for JaQuan. And sometimes when you’re a really talented young player, sometimes older players don’t want to be around you because they’re scared for their job or their playing time. But J.D. really brought JaQuan in and really rallied the entire crew. Guys like J.D. and Ray Lima, I think really having a powerful impact not just on JaQuan the football player, but JaQuan the person.”
Bailey said adopting Campbell’s even-keel approach to football has been on of the biggest challenges for him, but agrees that he’s grown the most off the field, whether in the pool or in the classroom.
“I would say my freshman (year) and even some of last year, I was kind of on and off and then on,” said Bailey, whose seven sacks this season are 1.5 away from Dale Pierson’s single-season mark. “Just trying to be great in the classroom and on the field.”
Bailey said “the process” has kept him grounded through the ups and downs of his college career.
The biggest “up” could come when the No. 24 Cyclones (8-4) take on the Cougars (9-3) and ultra-efficient and productive mustached quarterback, Gardner Minshew.
Minshew won the Johnny Unitas Award and finished fifth in Heisman Trophy balloting, which means Bailey will have faced three of the top five Hesiman vote getters by the end of the season.
“They are probably one of — or probably the best offense that we will see,” Bailey said. “Quarterback, that dude is amazing. The offensive line, they are great. Coaching — you can tell all those dudes are really, really coached up.”
As is Bailey, who once was considered something of a loose cannon, but now turns to laps underwater when stress rises, or worries pop up.
He doesn’t swim every day. Not even close. But he’s anything but a fish out of water when he decides to splash into the state gym pool and flash his well-honed swim strokes instead of his devastating swim move.
“It’s peaceful,” Bailey said. “I kind of like, I would say, get away. It’s just me back in one of my comfort zones. It’s a decent amount of crowd there, but I’m just there being me. Chillin.’”