DEPTH IS THE REASON: ISU DC Jon Heacock on his defense’s continued growth

Oct 3, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State defensive end Will McDonald IV (9) celebrates a sack during their football game at Jack Trice Stadium. Iowa State would go on to defeat Oklahoma 37-30. Mandatory Credit: Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports

They talked history, scheme, changes to college football and much more.

Those elements of the discussion — and many more — are reason enough to listen to Cyclone Fanatic publisher Chris Williams’ recent podcast with Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock (a.k.a. “The Professor”).

 But one of the most significant positive developments in the Cyclones’ program in recent years — burgeoning depth at all positions — is an aspect of the conversation I found most intriguing.

Chris mentioned how the ISU defense, which consistently ranks among the best in the Big 12 now, is peppered with enough top-notch talent that Heacock and his assistants can shift players in and out like line changes in hockey.

 Heacock’s response?

 “I think we’ve tried to do that with all of our guys, in all fairness,” Heacock said. “I think the better we’ve played, the contributing factor has been the depth that we played with. I think that’s been absolutely huge and sometimes doesn’t get the credit, I think, you know, the guys that can go in and sub. You know, Aric Horne going in and (subbing at SAM linebacker) for Mike (Rose), even if it’s two series, that allows Mike to play better in the fourth quarter. Gerry Vaughn (subbing in) at MIKE (for O’Rien Vance) … (Dae’Shawn Davis) at the WILL linebacker (for Jake Hummel) … our D-linemen running in and out, playing all those guys a number of plays, it just allows those kids to play better as the game goes in. I think our depth has been a huge factor.”

 No doubt. It’s also allowed talented players to find the proper fit and shine in situational roles. Front and center proof of this is the growth of pass-rushing defensive end Will McDonald, who earned first team all-Big 12 honors last season after leading the BIg 12 and the nation (tied) in sacks with 10.5 — a single-season record at ISU.

 McDonald also has played some outside linebacker in the past, which helped him stay on the field a bit more in accordance with Cyclone head coach Matt Campbell’s practice of getting his best players on the field in some way, shape or form.

 “He’s a dominant pass rusher, obviously,” Heacock said of McDonald. “I think anytime you have the ability to put somebody on the field that can rush the passer, that can do those kinds of things, I think that takes extra attention. That’s why those guys get paid a lot of money in (that position) at the National Football League. So anytime you have a pass rusher that can do what he did — we were blessed last year having (ISU career sacks leader) JaQuan (Bailey) and him on opposite sides, Enyi (Uwazurike) at times, Zach Petersen at times; those guys, you can create some mismatches or some matchup issues. I think Will allows you to do that. We brought him from space, playing him at linebacker sometimes, putting him on the edge sometimes, dropped him into coverage sometimes, and anytime you can do that, it’s the same thing, how you’re doing what you’re doing is probably more important than what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with is the ultimate key. So Will gives us a lot of flexibility. He’ll continue to grow as he continues to grow in the game.”

 That’s true for a variety of more developmental players who in the past often toiled behind the scenes before their respective a-ha moments. ISU’s depth has also allowed fans to see glimpses of up-and-coming talents, as well, so when it’s time for “next man up” football because of injuries or other issues, those players hit the ground running and the defense generally retains its full strength.

 “I think they got to see a lot of our guys,” Heacock said. “You saw Mason Chambers in there. You saw Craig McDonald in the last couple games. You saw Kym-Mani King in the Big 12 Championship game, who maybe played 50 snaps (previously) all year. You know, Isaiah Lee got some reps in there. J.R. Singleton played for us down the stretch, a freshman. … Guys just in and out of there … I think you saw a lot of our younger guys and, again, I think that was part of the reason why our guys had some success, or at least freshness down the stretch in a stretch run … I mean, D.J. Miller, T.J. Tampa, Michael Antoine played in some games down the stretch — those are all young kids. They got some playing time when maybe normally they may not have, but in a year like last year, we were able to keep it simple enough that they could learn it and by the end of the season they were helping us out.”