Iowa State’s defense prepares to implement a new crop of young players


Jacob Rice

ISU defensive back Myles Purchase looks toward his sideline during the ISU vs. Baylor football game. Sept. 24, 2022.

AMES — There haven’t been many seasons like 2022 on the defensive end for Iowa State.

The Cyclones were a force on defense, limiting opposing teams to just over 20 points per game. A strong defense has become standard for Iowa State, with defensive coordinator Jon Heacock consistently improving his unit year after year.

Veterans like Will McDonald IV, Anthony Johnson Jr. and O’Rien Vance made their presence known on the field during the 2022 season before their eventual send-off to the next level.

Following those players’ departures, Iowa State has taken steps to prepare its younger talent for a more pivotal role on the field.

It’s difficult to maintain a consistent product after losing a core group of players, no matter the program. Iowa State in particular has never really been a ‘reload not rebuild’ type of team. Still, the Cyclones have managed to remain consistently efficient on the defensive side of the ball even when relying on new personnel.

Iowa State has more holes to fill in preparation for the 2023 season, but with an abundance of young talent, the defense will look to prepare its newcomers for another standout season.

“There’s a lot of talent. There’s a lot of competition,” said head coach Matt Campbell. “Some of these young guys coming in will certainly push.”

Iowa State’s dominant defense was by no means a unit filled with returning veterans, but even without key players like linebacker Mike Rose and defensive end Eyioma Uwazurike, other veteran players carried the torch.

McDonald, who had developed into Iowa State’s star edge rusher, made a return for his fifth season in Ames. Johnson helped the Cyclones in the secondary after the senior made the move from corner to safety. Iowa State also replaced the hole left by Rose with Vance, who had missed some time the previous season due to injury.

This group of seniors provided a cornerstone for the defense and were instrumental in helping orchestrate one of the best seasons on that side of the ball in program history. But, even with a solid group of veterans to lead talented new starters, the inexperience raised concern in the preseason.

“There were questions about last year’s defense,” Campbell said. “I think the big thing for us is having that leadership, having those [seniors].”

Despite the questions, the 2022 Iowa State defense was near-flawless.

The Cyclones held 10 opponents under 30 points and prevented four teams from scoring more than one touchdown. Iowa State led the Big 12 in defensive efficiency, only allowing 30 touchdowns all season and holding opponents to an average of 20.3 points per game.

It wasn’t just the veterans carrying the bulk of the load, though. Cornerbacks Myles Purchase and T.J. Tampa grew from a talented yet inconsistent pair of corners to one of the best perimeters the program has seen in recent memory. Transfers MJ Anderson and Colby Reeder fit into the defensive scheme well, and young guys like safety Beau Freyler and defensive lineman J.R. Singleton were impactful despite their inexperience.

Iowa State had some veterans to rely on, but development of the team’s younger players transformed a good defense into an elite unit. As the Cyclones prepare for the 2023 season, a similar scenario is developing.

“Coming into this next season, I’m going to be a vet,” Tampa said. “I’m going to be a senior next year, so I’ll have to take on that responsibility, [by] just being more vocal to the young guys, just teaching them and carrying them along with me.”

McDonald, Johnson, Vance and Anderson are preparing for the NFL Draft on April 27, leaving a young but talented roster behind. Much like 2022, there are a select group of veterans leading the charge, but the Cyclones are depending on their younger players to make an impact.

As the team continues to progress through spring practice, the group of new starters and incoming freshmen have already begun to impress.

“They’ve been an impressive group, just from the standpoint of some maturity,” Heacock said of his new freshmen players. “I think the guys have done a lot of the off-the-field little things very well.”

Defensive end Samuel Same, defensive back Cam Smith and linebacker JJ Jean-Louis have already been standouts a few months into their development. While those players haven’t begun to run with the starters yet in spring practice, they’ve turned heads with the reps they have taken.

“It’s a great group; they’re very close,” Heacock said. “A lot of those young kids have done really good work off the field, and they just continue to learn on the field.”

In conjunction with the veterans, the Cyclones have other returning production ready to take on a more important role next season.

Players like Jeremiah Cooper, Gerry Vaughn, Tyler Onyedim and Joey Petersen made big plays for Iowa State last season. Those same players will be tasked with taking on a more important role next fall.

“I feel like the best way to learn is to do repetitions,” Petersen said. “Trying to just add to that part of my game is understanding the whole picture of football, not just the line on the paper and what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Petersen accounted for 15 total tackles last season. He was also able to pick up five solo tackles and a sack while playing behind McDonald and Anderson. With those two players gone, Petersen will seize a bigger role this upcoming season.

Among the veterans now, Petersen’s attention has shifted. He used to be the student learning from McDonald and Anderson; now he’s the teacher for the team’s younger players.

“If I can understand that type of stuff and being able to explain it to other people, it kind of helps break it down for another level for myself,” Petersen said.

Still, there is plenty the now-veteran has learned over the course of last season that he has begun to apply this spring.

“I like to watch [McDonald] a lot. He was just doing incredible stuff. It just looked inhuman almost,” Petersen said. “Being able to see that stuff and know that he can do that stuff, so why couldn’t I try it sometime?”

The Cyclones will be dealing with more than enough turnover headed into the 2023 season, but a lineup of young players hasn’t stopped the defense from reaching its maximum potential.

Much like last season, Heacock and his defense will be relying on young players making the jump from highly-touted prospect to full-fledged contributor. Similarly, the older players on the team need to grow into difference-makers.

For the guys that have already reached that elite status, bringing everyone else along has become the focus.

“When the veterans are humble enough, unselfish enough to bring everybody else with them, that’s when we play great,” Campbell said.