Experienced defensive line building upon last year

Defensive line coach Eli Rasheed coaches defense at the first football practice of the season on March 8. This is his first season coaching at Iowa State. Rasheed worked with Matt Campbell’s staff at Toledo for seven seasons.

Aaron Marner

Considering how much roster turnover college sports teams face, it’s rare to see a unit return essentially all of its production from one year to the next.

That’s the position Iowa State’s defensive line has found itself in, however, making spring practice even more important for a group expected to lead the Cyclone defense.

Led by seniors JaQuan Bailey and Ray Lima — who were named second team All-Big 12 by the league’s coaches in 2018 — the Iowa State defensive front could smash several school records in 2019. That experience has changed the way the unit is going through spring practices this time around.

“We’re not really installing just base stuff,” said defensive line coach Eli Rasheed. “You’re trying to figure out different things and do different things for the fall.”

Bailey and Lima combined to make 25 starts last season on the defensive line while redshirt junior defensive end Enyi Uwazurike started eight. But it goes beyond just the starters.

Six-foot-7 defensive end Matt Leo played in all 13 games last year, starting five games in Uwazurike’s absence. Senior tackle Jamahl Johnson enters his fourth year having played in 29 games as a Cyclone.

Even the young players, like redshirt freshman Isaiah Lee (two games played) and sophomore Zach Petersen (eight games) enter 2019 with notable experience under their belts.

“It’s gonna help my game out a lot,” Lee said about getting on the field in his redshirt season. “I feel like me getting that experience especially against West Virginia … it’s gonna help me out more in the future when I start getting more reps.”

Lee benefitted from the newly-implemented rule from the NCAA which allows players to participate in up to four games without burning their redshirt.

As a result, teams can utilize players, like Lee, who are ready to contribute as freshmen but who would normally not see playing time ahead of veteran starters.

Petersen found a role on special teams, where he tallied eight tackles in eight games. He was one of four Iowa State true freshmen last season who didn’t redshirt. He credited his position group for getting him ready to play from day one.

“When I got here in the summer I talked to everyone and anyone I could,” Petersen said. “When fall camp came around some of the older guys really just took us all in. Throughout the season if I had any questions I could go to JaQuan, Enyi, Spencer [Benton] and they’d just help me out.”

As Rasheed said, the task for Iowa State now is to raise its ceiling. The Cyclones are experimenting with 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Will McDonald at outside linebacker after he spent his first year in Ames at defensive end.

McDonald would essentially be a fourth pass rusher the Cyclones could utilize when presenting a 3-man defensive line.

With talented pass rushers like Uwazurike and Bailey — the latter being tied for the school record for career sacks at 18.5 — adding another weapon from the outside will only make the unit more dangerous for opposing offenses.

Rasheed hopes the young players on his line grow into the player Bailey is.

“He wants to be the best for the team,” Rasheed said. “It doesn’t matter if he sets the record or breaks it, it’s what he’s doing for the team. That’s changed for him. Maybe the younger JaQuan would’ve said ‘hey, I want to break this record.’ He does not care.”

If the Iowa State defensive line can match its 2018 production, the Cyclones’ defense could once again be among the best in the Big 12.

Rasheed said he won’t let his players be satisfied with that, however.

“I’ll never let them feel like they’ve made it,” Rasheed said. “I won’t. What’s really great about this group is that they’re humble guys. They will always work to get better. That’s a great thing for a coach.”