Billups thrives on defense

Zac Reicks

There was one particular reason why JaMaine Billups came to Iowa State to play football.

That was the guarantee he could play running back.

Billups turned down offers from his home state of Nebraska and football powerhouse Michigan because they wanted him to tackle ball carriers, not be a ball carrier himself.

Now, after two unsuccessful seasons toting the ball for Iowa State, Billups has transformed himself from a third-string back fighting for touches to a hard-hitting safety that starts on defense.

“It was tough learning the whole defensive scheme,” Billups said. “I put time in with extra film study and worked a lot with Coach [Chris] Ash. Everything has been great ever since and things are going smooth.”

Wide receivers coach Mike Grant first approached Billups with the idea of moving over to the defense right before practice began in the fall.

Both Grant and the other coaches saw the potential Billups had to affect the game from the safety position.

“Coach Grant told me a day before camp to come in and talk for a little bit,” Billups said. “He told me good things about it and that I would be on the field more.”

The first person Billups talked to about the change was his mother Gloria. A very big family person, Billups keeps his mother involved very closely with his life both on and off the football field.

“I am really close with my mom. Our relationship is more sister-and-brother than it is mother- and-son,” Billups said. “She is getting up in age but we still stay real close. She has helped me be mature about the whole situation.”

Maturity is one trait that running backs coach Tony Alford saw in Billups when he first came to Iowa State as a freshman. After coaching at the University of Washington last year and being away from Billups, Alford returned to Iowa State this year and saw a player who had changed considerably.

“His maturity level has changed night and day,” Alford said. “I am not saying he was immature, but he had typical freshman growing pains when he first came here.”

An immense prep talent coming out of Omaha, Neb., Billups showed brief glimpses of his skill during his first year as a Cyclone.

“We were really thrilled to get a back of his caliber and ability,” Alford said. “I thought that he would be a really talented back and I still feel he could be a good back.”

Billups struggled through his first two years at running back and couldn’t get his talents to come forth on the field. The 5-foot-8, 202-pound back rushed for only 46 yards and one score during his sophomore campaign and then was regulated to third-string after fall practice.

“I came out of high school wanting to be a running back but things just didn’t work out,” Billups said. “I was recruited by other schools to play safety, so it’s not so bad.”

While Billups is now learning to excel in his new position on the other side of the ball, there is another sport which he is picking up just as fast.

Billups’ first cousin Chauncey plays in the NBA for the Detroit Pistons and is always there to help with constructive criticism on his game.

“We talked before the Florida State game and he told me what I had to do to get ready,” Billups said. “I only get to see him about once a year because he is so busy with basketball and everything.”

Billups got his first taste of basketball playing in summer leagues with Chauncey and his little brother.

“My game is a little soft right now, but I definitely got game though,” Billups said with a laugh. “I used to stay with him in the summer and any time I can see him and the rest of my family, it is real special.”