Notebook: Experience and competition fuel safeties during spring practices

Iowa State then-redshirt sophomore Greg Eisworth breaks away during the 2018 Homecoming football game against Texas Tech on Oct. 27, 2018. Eisworth won the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year for the 2018 season.

Trevor Holbrook

While Iowa State featured three big names on offense last season with quarterback Brock Purdy, running back David Montgomery and wide receiver Hakeem Butler, one of its biggest strengths it leaned on was the defense.

On the defensive side of the ball, Iowa State lost key contributors to graduation, such as linebacker Willie Harvey and defensive back Brian Peavy. 

With losses at linebacker and cornerback, the Cyclones do have the luxury of retaining a majority of its contributors in the back end of the defense at safety and the star position.

“It’s really wide open [at safety],” said safeties coach D.K. McDonald. “Our goal is to keep building depth, so you can roll different guys in. If someone goes down, you can have the next man step up, so there’s a lot of competition. It’s fun; We’ve been mixing [and] matching lineups.”

Greg Eisworth

Eisworth — a redshirt junior who started 12 games last season — fills an important role for the Cyclones again this season.

The Texas native showcased his sure-tackling abilities, tallying a team-high 87 tackles. Eisworth showed the ability to assist in the run game or cover against high-powered Big 12 offenses.

“The great thing about Greg [is] he really wasn’t satisfied at all with the type of year he had,” McDonald said. “If you talk to him, you’d just think it was an OK year.”

“To be a newcomer here, first team All-Conference — he really did a great job. The sky’s the limit for him.”

Eisworth also provides chances for turnovers on a defense that doesn’t always generate a lot of takeaways. 

The Cyclones mastered the bend-but-don’t-break defense in the last couple seasons under Campbell, but Iowa State managed 16 takeaways last season (eight interceptions, eight fumble recoveries), putting it at 93rd in the NCAA.

Of those 16 takeaways, Eisworth snagged an interception and forced a pair of fumbles. Outside of the on-field production, Eisworth plans to take a step into a bigger leadership role in his second season at Iowa State.

“Being a leader on and off the field,” Eisworth said about taking the next step in his progression. “Just kind of helping bring up the guys behind me, the younger guys, up to the standard that we live by here as a Cyclone.”

Braxton Lewis

One of the biggest surprises for Cyclone fans in the fall was redshirt senior Braxton Lewis, who earned a start in each game at safety or the star position.

Lewis enrolled at Iowa State and joined the roster as a walk-on. After 70 tackles and a prominent role on the Iowa State defense, Lewis jumped onto a scholarship position for his final season in Ames, Iowa.

Similar to Eisworth, Lewis found himself creating turnovers in the secondary. The redshirt senior plucked a team-high three interceptions in 13 games.

Lewis has spent a lot of time at Iowa State, entering his fifth season in the fall. With the program at its peak during his time in Ames, Iowa, the redshirt senior has his sights set high for the team.

“I think, obviously, a team goal would be to go to the Big 12 Championship [and] win the Big 12 Championship,” Lewis said. “Prepare myself for the next level, prepare my teammates for the next level, really focus on the team right now.”

Team depth

With the combined experience between Eisworth and Lewis, the other players in the safety room provide solid experience behind the two.

The Cyclones sport experience with Lawrence White, Richard Bowens III, Arnold Azunna, Amechie Walker and others. 

White has the most experience of the remaining safeties, but Walker and Azunna are in the mix early on to compete for the star starting job, McDonald said.

The starter for the star position could be a key cog in the Cyclone defense to present another solid secondary option among the more experienced players.

“They’re both really talented guys, and they’re doing really well,” Lewis said about Walker and Azunna. “The part for them is learning the details, and the guys like me, Greg, [White], [Bowens III] that have a little bit more experience than them, that’s where we kind of step in.”