Nov 10, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Baylor Bears running back JaMycal Hasty (6) is tackled by Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Mike Rose (23) and defensive back Braxton Lewis (33) at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
We all know Iowa State’s defensive improvement over the last three seasons has been nothing short of extraordinary, but just how extraordinary it has been was not really hammered into my mind until doing some research after the football program tweeted out the following two graphics.
Seeing these compelled me to get some added context for how much better Iowa State’s defense has been since the 2017 season began (side note: keep in mind the points total graphic is for Big 12 games only). You’ll remember the 2017 season got off to a shaky (at best) start defensively, including allowing 44 points in an overtime loss to Iowa, but shifted dramatically with a switch to a three-man front prior to the Cyclones’ week four game against Texas, which ultimately ended in a 17-7 loss, but showed the promise for what was to come.
But, I did not truly grasp how drastic this shift was until I looked up the numbers for the prior three seasons. Obviously, I remember pieces of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons, but for reasons you will come to understand very shortly I think I have largely blocked the majority of memories from my mind.
In those three seasons prior to the last three, where the Cyclones have allowed a Big 12- low 630 points to league opponents, Iowa State allowed 1,008 points to Big 12 teams.
If you’re thinking there’s no way that’s true, believe me, you aren’t the only one with that initial reaction. I had it too. That’s why I did the math three times and each time got the same number.
As for the average total yardage allowed statistic, in which Iowa State ranks No. 2 for Big 12 teams over the last three seasons, the difference to the prior three years is certainly stark, but not quite as shocking. The Cyclones allowed 478.4 yards per game during those three years, which is 72 yards higher than the Big 12 average over the last three years.
Now, the real point of this article was not to detail those statistics to you, but to pose a question that I think we should consider going into the 2020 college football season.
As good as the Cyclones have mostly been over the last three years, what should our expectation be for this year’s Jon Heacock-led defense?
This is a question that I think requires several data-points of context to answer.
First, the Cyclones return nine starters on the defensive side of the ball, including several multiple-time All-Big 12 honorees, plus a handful of exciting players with quite a bit of experience, albeit not in the starting lineup. To put it quite frankly, just looking at the top-to-bottom makeup of this group, I believe it could be the most talented defense of the Campbell era, on paper, which I think is something we’ve said the last two years in a row, but the mix of experience and proven commodity talent on this roster warrants it again.
Secondly, I want to point to a quote Matt Campbell had during a Zoom call with reporters late last week. Before that, I want to say that it is really rare for Matt Campbell to speak glowingly about really any unit, position group or player unless he really means it. The guy is the king of coach speak and giving long, winding answers that make sense as a reporter listening in the moment, but then really don’t make that much sense at all once you listen to them again while transcribing.
Right or wrong, he’s just really good at being somewhat deceptive (in a good and non-malicious way) with his answers, which is how most all college football coaches are in 2020.
So, with that, here’s the quote…
“I think it’s going to be really fun to see, because you’ve got a mix of great veteran players on the defensive side of the football and some elite youth that’s come in between last year and this year that is quickly challenging some of the veterans in our program,” Campbell said. “I hope that’s where we’re at in our football program is where there’s competition every day when you walk out there on that football field for the ability to see who gets the opportunity when your opportunities come to be able to play in the game. I do think we’re finally at that point right now and defensively with the amount of veteran guys coming back, I think that’s a huge positive, but I also really love the young talent on the defensive side. I think it’s a really good mix.”
When I tell you that this quote stuck out to me like a huge glaring neon sign during this Zoom call, I freaking mean it. Campbell hardly ever talks that way, especially during fall camp, unless he really means it. This was in the middle of the call and really nobody even dwelled on it nor followed up.
The answer just kind of rolled on by as if Campbell was standing at the University Boulevard exit off of Highway 30 with a bright yellow sign that says, “Our defense is going to be good, suckers,” but the passing drivers just assumed he was probably some random lost soul trying to get a few bucks to buy a 40 of Steel Reserve at the gas station down the road.
What it should tell us is that Campbell is really confident in the unit they have coming back, especially when I tell you that the quote did not end where I stopped it above and he kept going on with a short stop back into Campbell’s usual rhetoric about preparation and details.
“Defensive football in general, especially early on in a season like this with no spring practice and a little bit of a delayed start to fall camp and a quickly approaching season,” Campbell said. “We’re going to have to do a really good job on my end of designing practices to get our defense what they need to be prepared to play, especially in the early part of the fall season.”
This next (and final) part is the absolute kicker, though, and is what left me wondering what our expectations should be for Iowa State’s defense entering 2020 and how good this group with a whole bunch of proven productive and talented starters could really be?
We all know they will be lightyears better than the defenses at Iowa State from 2014-17, but the idea that they could be better than the three that followed those years, the last three, which has been one of the two most disruptive defenses in the league during that stretch…
All because of one answer from Matt Campbell, I’m not too sure that should not be outside the realm of possibility.
“I have great trust in Coach Heacock and our staff, but I have great trust in the veteran leadership of our program,” he said before the final conclusion. “I am just in general very excited about the ability to have a very productive and talented defense this fall.”
And as someone who has listened to hours and hours of Matt Campbell’s coach speak- filled quotes in the last five years, if that guy is publicly saying he is excited, then you probably should be too.