Shedding blocks, gaining pressure remain goals for defensive tackles


Photo: Yue Wu/Iowa State Daily

Defensive end Cleyon Laing warms up before the game against Texas A&M with his teammates on Saturday, Oct. 22. Iowa State fell to Texas A&M 33-17.

Jake Calhoun

Jake McDonough entered his senior spring season as the only returning starter on the defensive line with heavy hands and hungry depth behind him.

Following a season of starting 12 games at defensive tackle, however, McDonough will be starting at nose tackle with the objective of shedding blocks instead of eating them up.

“This year has been a lot more fun for me because I’m [lining up] right there over the ball so it allows me to use my get-off speed in order to get to the lineman right away,” McDonough said. “It’s just getting my arms extended so that I have the [opposing] lineman locked out.”

ISU defensive tackles coach Shane Burnham said McDonough is more natural at nose tackle because he is the quickest off the ball, which can be advantageous in getting past the center once the ball is snapped.

“Sometimes I think he’s cheating the snap count,” Burnham said of McDonough. “He’s right on the center and the center is a one-handed man because he’s trying to snap and get the snap hand back on him.

“I think the proximity of the nose guard to the center and Jake’s explosiveness and his strength make him a more natural nose.”

McDonough moves from a position where he recorded 35 total tackles — 20 of which were solo — as well as two sacks and a team-high five hurries.

Cleyon Laing will be assuming McDonough’s old position at defensive tackle a year after switching from defensive end to interior line.

Burnham said with the transition inside, Laing struggled until week seven of last season when the light “switched on” and he realized the requisite of physical play to thrive as an interior lineman.

“He was so used to playing on the edge at defensive end, all those blocks are later,” Burnham said. “So your hands don’t have to get involved, you can get away with some pad-level issues — not being low — but you can’t inside taking on those double teams.”

The fighting mentality that is required to thrive on the interior line was difficult for McDonough to adapt to having played defensive end at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa.

“That was different for me because my position in high school was a lot different — we were reading things — and I wasn’t necessarily focusing on getting off the ball,” McDonough said. “Now, it’s just, ‘OK, I have to get off the ball, I have to hit this guy in the mouth before he hits me.'”

Before the team’s first spring practice March 20, coach Paul Rhoads said the play of the defensive line would have to improve if it hopes to mitigate any extra burden for the linebacking and secondary corps.

“Last year, they did a better job of forcing pressure and we did a great job of getting turnovers,” said linebacker A.J. Klein. “It directly correlates to defensive line play.”

Returning letterwinners in the rotation at both positions include Walter Woods III, Brandon Jensen and Henry Simon — all of whom are rotating in at both nose and tackle.

Burnham said all three have been contributing this spring with the hope of them being solid backups when McDonough and Laing need a breather.

“[Woods III is] a plugger,” Burnham said. “He works his butt off rushing the passer, but Jensen’s more athletic. The thing holding Jensen back right now is he’s got some natural football to him, but the weight room doesn’t match right now. He just has not caught up to where he needs to be strength-wise to get in there and really thrive.”

Burnham’s only issue with Simon — who previously played at Grossmont Community College in El Cajon, Calif., as well as San Diego State — is getting him up to speed with everything after joining the team last August and missing summer workouts.

“He’s reshaped his body, he’s got some really good feet,” Burnham said of Simon. “I wish I could have had Henry all summer last year, but we’re making up for lost time.”

Simon has “so much room” for improvement, Burnham said, but his 6-foot-3, 289-pound build will provide some consistent size on the interior line.