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
It’s Drake Relays week, and please let me use the occasion to remind you that Iowa State first-team All-Big 12 defensive end Will McDonald is an incredible athlete.
Duh, right? But bear with me.
Everyone knows he broke the Cyclones’ single-season sacks record with 10.5 last season and that he chose football over basketball — a sport in which he’s also singularly gifted.
Fewer people know that McDonald, who stands 6-4 and has bulked up to around 240 pounds, won the Wisconsin High School Division I discus state title with a best throw of 179-9. And fewer people still know that McDonald — who entered the long jump event at that state meet seeded a distant 20th — surged to third in that competition.
“I think everyone was shocked,” McDonald told The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel at the time.
Well, the era of Will McDonald shocking anybody but himself has long been over.
The supremely gifted edge rusher has transformed from a highly valued situational player into a savvy starter — and perhaps the best D-end in the Big 12.
McDonald helped the Cyclones rank 19th nationally in sacks last season (29) and ninth in tackles for loss (82).
So where does he — and ISU — go from there? Up, of course.
McDonald strode onto campus in Ames at a very lean 215 pounds. He’s now up to that 240 number, with plans for adding more muscle mass in the immediate future.
“I think it will help me a lot during the season with my stamina and everything,” McDonald said of his offseason nutrition regimen and the subsequent gains. “And, like, with power, strength, ability. Last year I was kind of in a position to do it but not exactly, because I was still low, like, in my weight. I’m really trying to get to about 250 to be at my full potential, but it just depends on (a lot of factors) because my metabolism is extremely fast so I’m just trying to keep doing what I have to do to get to 250.”
A bulkier McDonald won’t have the Cyclones’ all-time sacks leader JaQuan Bailey as his bookend anymore, but 2019 starter and key 2020 backup Zach Petersen will ably fill that role.
He has three career sacks and three forced fumbles. He’s also helped push as well as learned from McDonald during his meteoric rise.
“I think we’ve both learned the same amount from each other,” Petersen said. “He’s definitely taught me how to pass rush a little bit better. He’s a guy that has a natural knack to get to the quarterback and find a way. Just kind of watching him move, I’ve learned that you’ve got to be a little more fluid in your movements … (not just be) a power person; you’ve got to have some finesse to you.”
Power flows from the interior of the defensive line, where converted defensive end Enyi Uwazurike returns to wreak havoc.
His ability to occupy two offensive lineman frees up McDonald, Petersen and others so they can swiftly, powerfully and creatively dart into the backfield for sacks and TFLs.
“Everyone’s different,” the 6-6, 310-pound Uwazurike said. “I would say ‘freak’ would describe (McDonald) in every characteristic. He’s big. He’s fast. He has (a lot of) strength. He’s not that heavy, but he has the strength, so I feel like he’s just a freak of nature. Those don’t come too often and we’ve got one.”
They’ve also got the right one leading them in defensive line coach Eli Rasheed.
ISU’s D-line room has made what a casual observer might consider “shocking” growth since he arrived with the rest of head coach Matt Campbell’s staff in 2016 — and the only discernible trend points upward in that regard.
Rasheed also might be the only person who’s never been “shocked” by McDonald’s remarkable progression. After all, he’s the one who most shaped it.
“He’s gonna try to outwork everybody on the field,” Rasheed said. “He wants to leave the field the hardest working guy out there — and that kind of thing, with that kind of athletic ability, and that kind of work ethic? Nah, I’m not surprised (by) what’s going on with Will McDonald in college football.”