Sep 22, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Akron Zips offensive lineman Trevor Brown (59) beats Iowa State Cyclones defensive end JaQuan Bailey (3) to the fumble recovery at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Zips 26 to 13. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
When JaQuan Bailey arrived on Iowa State’s campus three years ago, he personified potential and future star status — but was already too good to be a project.
The 6-2, 251-pound soon-to-be senior from Jacksonville, Fla., learned to navigated college life as he surged into backfields to crumple quarterbacks. There was no learning curve and it showed as the Cyclones limped to a 3-9 mark in Coach Matt Campbell’s first season.
“I would say my freshman (year) and even some of last year, I was kind of on and off and then on,” Bailey said in a one-on-one interview with Cyclone Fanatic in advance of last season’s Alamo Bowl trip. “Just trying to be great in the classroom and on the field.”
Few, if any ISU players, serve as better examples of the multi-pronged progress the program’s made under Campbell and his staff than Bailey, who enters his senior season poised to shatter the school’s all-time sacks record.
As he’s grown up, the defense has, too. As noted last week, Athlon Sports ranks the Cyclones’ front seven as the best in the Big 12. That’s a far cry from where the D-line and linebacker groups were in season one of Campbell’s reclamation effort, of course, and Bailey’s ability to mature and adapt is a big reason why ISU’s coming off consecutive eight-win seasons.
“I hope he’s a testament of what our program should look like,” Campbell told Cyclone Fanatic Wednesday in Marshalltown during a Tailgate Tour appearance. “He’s a young man that came in and you saw talent early. You certainly saw immaturity. That wasn’t fine-tuned as a sophomore, but who is? Then you go into your junior year and you see it start to come together at a really special level and now he’s got a chance to go into his senior year and, you know, that word ‘elite,’ or ‘high-end?’ — He gets to choose his path and to finish his story.”
Bailey’s season sacks totals have blossomed from 3.5 to six and to eight in his first three seasons. He’s one-half sack from Shawn Moorehead’s career mark of 18.5 sacks, making record book-based plaudits virtually an inevitable feature of his bright future.
All of which is a symptom of success rather than an end in itself because, again, ISU’s success as a defensive unit has tracked favorably alongside Bailey’s developmental arc.
He’s had help, of course. It’s impossible to overstate Ray Lima’s value up the middle as both a run stopper and passing game disruptor. Many others, including fellow edge rusher, Enyi Uwazurike, key an often three-man front — with second-level support from talented linebackers such as Mike Rose and Marcel Spears — that allowed just 115 rushing yards per game (best in the Big 12) last season.
Even more critically, the Cyclones’ defense strengthened as the games wore on. In fourth quarter Big 12 games, ISU allowed a mere 2.02 yards per carry and a conference low-tying three rushing touchdowns.
So is it fair to already consider the 2019 defense as elite until/unless proven otherwise?
But Campbell, obviously, won’t go there until the Cyclones enter and prosper in “prove it” mode, beginning with the Aug. 31 season-opener against Northern Iowa.
“All of that will be based on the growth of what this group really makes from the end of last season through the summer months and the early part of the fall,” Campbell said. “But I think it’s got the ability to be a true strength of our football team. There’s a lot of seniors in that group. A lot of guys that have played a lot of football and a lot of guys that have come a long way, but what you hope is they’re coming to the end of their career playing their best football. I think we’ve always said that we’ve been our best when our seniors are playing their best football. There’s guys like (Ray) Lima, JaQuan Bauley, Matt Leo — those are guys that have played a lot for us so far and done some really good things and Jamahl Johnson’s in that boat as well and the juniors aren’t too far behind in terms of experience, so we just hope they’re ready to play their best and they know what their expectations are.”
Along with the stalwarts, younger players are rising into important spots on the depth chart as well. Their respective gains could make the Cyclones’ quality roster talent on the D-line, at least, three spots deep — an unthinkable prospect at the position when Bailey first strode unto campus in 2016.
“I think you’ve got Isaiah (Lee); you’ve got Zach Petersen, now trying to fight for that Spencer Benton role,” Campbell said. “Blake Peterson, who got those 15 spring practices. Isaiah — even Josh Bailey and in a way, Tucker Robertson, I think all those guys are key because the reality of it is is some of those guys are challenging for those meaningful reps and when you’re a really good player, you don’t want to come off the field. Even though you know my mentality — I want to play a lot of guys — it’s not only about those reps, it’s about those critical moments: Who’s gonna be in the game? And now some of those guys are challenging for those opportunities (and it) just really brings out the best of the best players, because the best players demand that of themselves and show that in practice and those critical moments to make sure they’re on the field.
“What I think that fosters is just competition — and the best rise to the top. … We’ve got that at that position at a high rate. We’ve got that at linebacker at a high rate. We’re starting to see that one the O-line right now. Tight end. So that competition piece is big.”
As my CF colleague Jared Stansbury noted late last week, ISU’s burgeoning strength up front on defense has helped the offensive line achieve more consistency, as well.
Competition simmers within, then spills out across the Big 12 map once summer weekends turn into important Fall Saturdays. It’s a process Bailey’s mastered over the years — in terms of physical performance and attitude. It’s why Campbell now smiles when you simply mention his name.
“I think the one thing I’m most proud of is who he is off the field when you talk to him. He’s a different guy than what you talked to as a sophomore. I’m really proud of what he stands for. He’s got great leadership ability on top of it too, so that, again, is where I hope what we’re doing in our program — again, winning and losing is great, but you see a guy like that who is doing it at a really high rate now, I think that’s the great reward in coaching.”