ISU safety Malik Verdon grateful just to be “out there” to help his team Saturday at Cincinnati

Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Malik Verdon (7) celebrates after an interception against TCU during the third quarter in the Jack Trice Legacy Game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

 AMES — Iowa State safety Malik Verdon scanned the stands, looking for a familiar, loving face.

 He found it when he locked eyes with his mother, who smiled through streams of tears after seeing her son shine in the Cyclones’ 27-14 win over TCU in last Saturday’s Jack Trice Legacy game.

 “It was amazing,” said Verdon, who notched his first career interception against the Horned Frogs after missing the first two Big 12 games because of an injury. “It was beautiful. I like to say that a lot. My mom caught me — she was over there, teared up, joyful. Just being able to be out there was amazing.”

 Verdon will be grateful to be “out there” again at 11 a.m. Saturday when ISU (3-3, 2-1) travels to his home state of Ohio to face Cincinnati (2-3, 0-2). The game will be broadcast on FS1. The 6-4 Verdon’s size and athleticism will be critically important for a Cyclone defense intent on building off last weekend’s solid second-half performance against the Horned Frogs.

 “He’s an elite talent,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said of Verdon, a sophomore who missed the final nine games of last season after undergoing surgery. “And he’s a really special football player. When I talk about ‘A’ players making ‘A’ plays — he’s an ‘A’ player for us. I think you saw his impact on Saturday. His ability to stop the run on the boundary, his ability to be a physical tackler; his length and size and ability to run and cover people on the boundary — we haven’t had a lot of boundary safeties who have had that skill set, and he certainly has got all those tools.”

 Verdon’s simply been unable to showcase that talent much in his two-plus seasons at ISU, but if he can stay healthy in the second half of this season, he’ll continue to impact the defense immensely.

 “He’s mentally been here and been through this defense and all the things that go with it,” said Cyclone defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, whose unit is tied for third nationally with 10 interceptions. “Being healthy, it really helps everybody having him back out there. He is different. He brings a different skill set.”

 Verdon’s broad-ranging skills will be needed against a Cincinnati team that ranks 11th nationally in total offense at 490.0 yards per game. Two of the Bearcats’ three losses have come by eight or fewer points — and the defense only yielded 20 points to Oklahoma’s high-octane offense the other setback.

 “You’d better play your ‘A’ game or you’re gonna get beat,” Campbell said. “This conference challenges you and makes you be at your absolute best or you’re gonna get beat. So all of that said, it takes great leadership and it takes great motivation to have the ability to get better every day and every week. (That’s) easy to say, but it’s really hard to do.”

 It’s not difficult for Verdon — who notched a career-high eight tackles against TCU — to lean on those traits, given the vast number of games he’s missed because of injury in his young career. That’s why it’s “amazing” and “beautiful” just being able to play football. He’s healthy, happy, and determined to leave a lasting mark.

 “I love it,” Verdon said. “I love to get down there (against the run). I love to cover. I love to do all of it.”