Petersen and Uwazurike’s leadership key for Cyclones’ defensive line

Iowa State then-junior defensive lineman Zach Petersen (No. 55) pulls off the West Virginia offensive lineman in an attempt to swat West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege’s pass attempt. The Cyclones went on to beat the Mountaineers 42-6 at Jack Trice Stadium on Dec. 5, 2020.

Sam Stuve

Iowa State is a team heading into the 2021 season with experience at every position. That serves as a big plus heading into a season with higher expectations than ever before. 

One of these position groups where Iowa State boasts experience is the defensive line, where veterans are looking to make their final run as Cyclones while preparing the next generation.

Iowa State has four seniors on the defensive line, but the return of Zach Petersen and Enyi Uwazurike have stood out in the early stages of fall camp to their coaches and teammates.

While players like JaQuan Bailey, now in the NFL, and Will McDonald seem to have gotten more attention than any in this group, the two have been valuable pieces for the Cyclones as they build on the success of previous seasons.

Petersen and Uwazurike have the most starting experience out of the four seniors in the room, with Uwazurike having the most starts of all with 33. 

Uwazurike, who’s 6-foot-6 and weighs 320 pounds, has a large number of accolades during his time at Iowa State. He is a two-time All Big 12 Coaches Team Honorable Mention player who’s racked up 102 tackles (22.5 for loss), six sacks, two fumble recoveries and one touchdown in four seasons as a defensive end.  

The Detroit native has had at least 25 tackles, five TFL’s, and a sack in the last three seasons and is using his extra year of eligibility to return to play this season.

“Having Enyi back for another year has been incredible for our room,” Iowa State Defensive Line Coach Eli Rasheed said. 

Rasheed said Uwazurike provides great leadership for the younger players, as well as versatility to the group.

“While we do have some youth in that room and he’s done a great job getting around those young guys,” Rasheed said. “When it’s versatility or two we can play him in several spots, zero, nose, three techniques or five technique.”

In addition to showing growth on the field, Rasheed said that Uwazurike has shown it off the field as well. 

“His story’s incredible, growing up and with his dad in and out of his life and coming to us just as a young big kid, he’s had so much growth in the aspects of life and being a leader, and doing the right things off the field,” Rasheed said “For him to have a college degree. Being that he came to us as academic redshirt, and then graduated and now working on his master’s is incredible.

Head Coach Matt Campbell said Uwazurike has shown high-end ability and has had some “incredible moments,” throughout his Iowa State tenure.

Campbell said he and Petersen put in time this offseason to “maximize their potential.”

“I think both of those guys, if you physically saw where those guys went this offseason, you’ll be really excited about what those two look like, the time and the effort that they put into maximizing their full potential,” Campbell said.

Uwazurike said his mindset heading into this season is the same as it has been in the past.

“Fall camp is about just getting your body right, your mind right, the playbook right, and the little things right,” he said. “I say it’s continue to strive to be better at everything that needs to be better.”

Petersen, a Long Grove, Iowa, native, was described as a “Swiss Army knife” by Rasheed. 

Petersen played in 25 games in the last two seasons, starting in one of those games last year and nine in the 2019 campaign. Last season, he had 19 tackles (two for loss), one sack and one fumble.

“If you go back to watch our football team play and Zach Petersen, he’s been exceptional for us,” Campbell said. “Maybe it’s just because JaQuan and those guys have gotten in a lot of the conversation, but I really feel like Zach Petersen is one of the best defensive linemen that we coach since I’ve been here.”

Similar to what he said about Uwazurike, Rasheed said that Petersen, who is 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, has some versatility. 

“He can play both sides of it (the defensive line),” Rasheed said. “He can be that [defensive] end, we can plan that Leo, if we get well, tired or anything. Now again, you’ve got Cordarrius Bailey you’ve got Corey Sutton there too, but if we want a guy to the field that we want to create vertical knockback on the line of scrimmage put Zach Petersen there.”

Petersen’s attitude on the field seems to be one of no non-nonsense, just work, based on what his coaches and peers have to say.

“Zach Petersen is the same guy every day, he is like the law, he is an enforcer, he don’t play, he don’t joke, it’s work,” Rasheed said. “He’s been a great model for our guys, he will come in every day to work being the same guy on the field, not having a bad day and continue to get better. That’s what Zach Petersen does now he’s an he’s an incredible kid.”

Uwazurike said Petersen’s worker’s mentality can be seen in his knowledge of the playbook.

“He’s really good on the playbook, he knows exactly where to be, Zach is the brain of the defensive line,” Uwazurike said. 

Petersen is one of Uwazurike’s favorite defensive lineman because “playbook wise, he’s probably the smartest.”

He said Petersen is one of the leaders of the defensive line and has embraced that role.

“When we get out to practice activities, he’s always, right with me first in line, coaching up the younger guys doing it, as much as you can. He’s just as much  the leader as I am,” Uwazurike said. 

Having Uwazurike back, and using Petersen in different ways, may be beneficial this season to a Cyclone team that lost JaQuan Bailey to the NFL Draft and saw Latrell Bankston transfer in the offseason.