Cyclone defense: Can it get even better?

Freshman linebacker Mike Rose and redshirt senior D’Andre Payne drag down an Iowa rusher. Iowa defeated Iowa State 13-3 in the 2018 Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk game.

Trevor Holbrook

Under Matt Campbell and Jon Heacock’s watch, Iowa State’s defense rose to nearly the top of the Big 12 Conference.

It’s probably safe to assume Cyclone fans won’t see another 71-7 box score like they did in 2013 against Baylor and Bryce Petty.

Instead, the defenses treaded upward after Paul Rhodes’ departure, but Rhodes managed to secure a quality defense earlier in his tenure. In 2012, A.J. Klein, Jake Knott and Jeremiah George anchored a stout defense that ranked No. 27 in adjusted defense, according to

The following season, Iowa State retained George, but the numbers plummeted to No. 99 under Rhodes. The adjusted defense rankings stayed in the same range in the final two Rhodes’ years, slumping to No. 104 in 2014 and No. 91 in 2015.

With Campbell in Ames, Iowa State’s defense improved, jumping to No. 77 in adjusted defense in 2016. In year two, Iowa State surged to No. 21, and the Cyclones stayed consistent in 2018, checking in at No. 24 (all adjusted defense rankings were gathered from

The scary news for the Big 12 is Iowa State’s defense could be even better in 2019. The Cyclones kept their foundation on the defensive line. At linebacker, Iowa State lost Willie Harvey to graduation but returned the rest of its production.

In the secondary, Iowa State lost D’Andre Payne and Brian Peavy, but Datrone Young and Anthony Johnson shined in limited playing time.

On the flip side, if Iowa State’s offense struggles with changes at running back and wide receiver, the defense could be forced to play more snaps and wear down at the end of games. Also, Harvey’s departure leaves a big hole on the defense. Iowa State possesses options to replace Harvey, but Harvey played a tough position on the edge and played it well.

On the outside, Young and Johnson present talented options, but they’ve yet to play an entire season as starters and teams gained tape on them from last year.

While Iowa State’s defense is set up to be its strength again in 2019, it needs at least these three players to stand out.

Mike Rose

Sophomore linebacker Mike Rose thrived in his freshman season for the Cyclones. Rose looked like human Flex Seal, plugging running lanes and preventing big runs from leaking into the secondary.

The Brecksville, Ohio, native tallied 75 total tackles, one and a half sacks and a fumble recovering that led to his first career touchdown.

Iowa State should fully unleash Rose with a full offseason and spring to prepare compared to transitioning from high school to college last offseason.

Rose also adopted a special teams role this spring and could be a force in that phase of the game, too. With the loss of Harvey, Rose is primed to help bring along Harvey’s replacement or committee of replacements.

While Brock Purdy’s holding down the fort on offense, Rose earned that responsibility on defense after last season.

Will McDonald

Speaking of linebackers, Iowa State added redshirt freshman Will McDonald to the group this offseason.

Campbell took advantage of the four-game redshirt rule and used McDonald in four games while preserving his redshirt status. During the limited snaps, McDonald impacted the games with three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

What story his statistics don’t tell are his size and athleticism. McDonald checks in at 6-foot-4, 220-pounds and has freak athlete written all over him.

If McDonald can soften the blow of losing Harvey and add a pressure option to Iowa State’s defense, look out.

JaQuan Bailey

It’s baffling how under talked about senior defensive lineman JaQuan Bailey is. Bailey has “led the team in sacks” plastered all over his player profile, tying the school record in three years.

Outside of the sack numbers, Bailey’s developed into a better run-stopper as he’s aged, and he’s opened up the opportunities for his fellow lineman and linebackers to feast on sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Bailey’s going to set a record or two in his final season in Ames but more importantly, Iowa State’s defense is going to continue to reap the benefits of having a stellar defensive end (the rest of the defensive line is salty too).

So before Cyclone fans get caught up with speedy corners and strong linebackers, take a minute and appreciate Bailey because the defense will miss him when he’s gone.