Iowa State Cyclones defensive back T.J. Tampa (2) celebrates an interception in the first quarter during a college football game between the Iowa State Cyclones and the Cincinnati Bearcats on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. © Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK
AMES — Mention the names Xavier Worthy and Adonai Mitchell to Iowa State cornerback T.J. Tampa and he’ll respond with a blank stare.
Texas’s pair of elite wide receivers don’t evince fear from the time-tested senior. Tampa’s one of several top NFL prospects at his position and he didn’t ascend to such a lofty perch by being nervous. Instead, he’s eager and able — a true lockdown corner for the Cyclones’ always-constrictive defense.
“It’s definitely a great challenge, these great receivers,” said Tampa, who seeks to help ISU (6-4, 5-2) upend the No. 7 Longhorns (9-1, 6-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday (FOX) at Jack Trice Stadium. “But I feel like if we stay true to who we are and we stay true to (defensive coordinator Jon) Heacock and his scheme, I feel like we’ll do (well).”
Mitchell, a 6-4, 196-pound junior, leads Texas with nine touchdown receptions this season. His blend of size and speed allows him to both break free from defenders as well as win in jump-ball situations.
Worthy, a 6-1, 172-pound junior, caught two touchdown passes to help his team edge the Cyclones, 24-21, last season in Austin. He’s also potent in the punt return game, averaging a Big 12-best 18.7 yards per attempt.
“We all know he’s a very quick, fast guy,” said Tampa, who many NFL Draft analysts peg as a potential second-round selection. “If he scores, you’ve just got to keep playing.”
Tampa and his fellow defensive backs hope they’ll be back at full strength on the back end when they face the Longhorns’ Quinn Ewers-led offense. Free safety Jeremiah Cooper — who snared five interceptions in the first seven games of the season — has missed the past two games with a lower leg injury and his playmaking ability has been sorely missed.
“(He’s) certainly, I would say, a lot more likely to play than less likely to play, at least as of right now,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said on Tuesday.
But even with Cooper sitting out, the Cyclones have continued to shine in the secondary. They lead the conference in passing yards allowed per game at 204.3. ISU’s opponents are also averaging a meager 6.1 yards per pass attempt — a number that ranks 12th nationally.
“We’re playing good football,” Tampa said. “These games are key games. It’s kind of hard, but everybody is together all the time and we believe in each other.”
ISU’s coaches have trusted Tampa for a long time because he’s excelled in pass coverage since being shifted from wide receiver to cornerback as a freshman. His athleticism and ability to adapt hastened the move, which Tampa readily accepted. Trust, it turns out, is a two-way proposition.
“You go through the recruiting journey and a lot of that was through the wide receiver play of him,” Campbell said. “And then you flip, he comes to camp and takes a couple reps at corner and you’re like, ‘Holy smokes. Maybe this guy is a true NFL corner.’”
Maybe, but right now Tampa will settle for being among the nation’s best at the collegiate level. That’s more than enough as he prepares to make his 21st consecutive start Saturday night against the Longhorns — and last at Jack Trice Stadium.
“It’s awesome to see guys change on their own,” Heacock said of Tampa’s four-year journey within the program. “Sometimes as coaches, you’ve got to keep explaining, trying to get them to understand, and then the light comes on. When they understand, it becomes player-driven, personally driven. It’s been fun to watch him do that. Just growing up and everything he’s trying to do is to be a professional. I think all the other players see it, too.”