‘Built different’: Iowa State defense boasts new look in spring


Tyler Coe

Joey Petersen celebrates after a play against Oklahoma on Oct. 29

Christian Royston, Sports Editor

Although the Cyclones finished the 2022 season with a disappointing 4-8 record, the defense saw consistent success throughout the year, sitting at the top of the Big 12 in nearly every defensive area.

With a lot of talent moving onto the next level, including star defensive end Will McDonald IV, questions are starting to arise about how the team will look in the near future. Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock met with the media after practice Thursday to talk about what’s going right and what the team is working on in the spring.

Not only is McDonald getting his shot at the top of the NFL Draft, the defensive end who lined up on the other end is also taking his talents to the next level. MJ Anderson was a dominant force on the defensive line when attention was diverted to McDonald.

Now that both starting edge rushers are moving on, the defensive line will look much different. Heacock said multiple times that the line will be “running by committee,” but the player ahead of the pack taking reps at the one-spot is Joey Petersen.

Petersen got some snaps last season, with his most productive game coming with a strip sack to seal the deal against Ohio early in the year. Now Petersen looks bigger and stronger than last year, and he’s ready to take his new role head-on.

Of course, his transformation didn’t happen overnight, and Petersen is still working hard to be the best version of himself as the season rolls around. That hard work is something that he learned early on from his father.

Petersen’s dad coached him in fifth and sixth grade when Petersen started playing tackle football. He taught Petersen how to tackle and play hard.

“It kinda just showed me the way to work and work hard,” Petersen said. “He always set a good example, and [he was] pushing me and trying to keep me going in the right path and staying disciplined.”

When Petersen came up with big moments last season, his dad couldn’t have been prouder. He celebrates his son’s accomplishments as if they are his own.

Now Petersen’s father gets the chance to watch his son be the leader of the defensive end group in the upcoming season.

“He loves it. It’s always a parent’s dream to see their kid succeed,” Petersen said. 

Petersen also had other motivators during his rise to a possible starting spot. Playing alongside McDonald and Anderson and watching them play gave Petersen a lot to build off of.

“I’ll never do the same stuff that they can; you know, we’re built different,” Petersen said. “We just aren’t the same people, but being able to see what works for them and being able to understand that part of the game and learn what’s working and what’s not [was helpful].”

Not only that, MJ Anderson helped Joey Petersen learn by helping him with tape. Anderson studied the game like no other on the team and would constantly be asking questions and trying to learn as much as he could.

Anderson also passed on that knowledge to defensive lineman Tyler Onyedim, who is fighting for a spot on the lineup. Onyedim had the advantage of rooming with Anderson every game, so he had the insider scoop on all the tips and tricks Anderson had.

“He used to teach me a lot–teach me some different secrets and things like that on how to get to the ball,” Onyedim said.

Both Onyedim and Petersen ended last season with one sack and one turnover. Onyedim’s came off an interception while Petersen forced a fumble.

Alongside the defensive line, Heacock is also looking to fill holes in the linebacker room. With longtime starter and defensive leader O’Rien Vance leaving for the next level, Heacock is left with a huge hole in the middle of the field.

However, Heacock isn’t worried one bit about Vance’s absence. The depth on the team from the returning and incoming players should keep the linebacker room in good shape.

“Lotta depth there. Lotta bodies,” Heacock said.

The last part of the field that Heacock addressed was the defensive back room. Similar to both the defensive end room and the linebacker room, the defensive backs are losing a longtime leader in Anthony Johnson Jr.

Johnson did his best over his time as a leader to build up the young talent and leave them in a good spot going forward. One defensive back that had great moments last season was TJ Tampa.

Tampa did everything he needed to do to earn the trust of his teammates and coaches. He defended passes in crucial situations while coming away from the season with a pick.

Heacock said that every one of the defensive backs is starting to do the little things right. They are getting their eyes right and seeing the field better. They are improving their footwork. They are also getting better at leveraging right against opposing wide receivers.

“That’s how they live. That’s the world they live in,” Heacock said. “An inch or six inches is six points.”

When the little things start to fall apart, that’s when mistakes happen. Going forward, the defense is going to use spring as a time to work on the little things.

The defense will be featuring new faces all around, but every single defender is ready for the challenge.