ISU defensive end Dale Pierson is sacking up

Iowa State defensive end Dale Pierson (45) celebrates a sack during the Iowa vs. Iowa State game on Saturday.  

Max Dible

Dale Pierson slunk out of Jack Trice Stadium in August 2014, his shoulders stooped under the disappointment of his first game as a Cyclone.

Iowa State was beaten soundly by North Dakota State, 34-14, and the then-junior defensive end knew the difference he could have made — had he merely been afforded the opportunity.

“I was real discouraged,” Pierson said. “Only getting three snaps, not really feeling like I had a real chance.”

Fast forward a year later, and Pierson stands atop the NCAA in a statistical category of supreme importance, leading the nation with five sacks after only two games.

And now, as the recently inflated reputation of the defensive end who was shrouded in anonymity for much of his first season as a Cyclone continues to expand, Pierson must regularly field questions about what plays he’ll make next.

But anytime anyone poses the question ‘How many sacks you going to get the next game?’ Pierson doesn’t respond with numbers or predictions; only with two words — “God willing.”

“I try not to make a big deal out of it,” Pierson said. “Social media has been blowing up big time. I mean I care about it of course, that’s a big achievement. I just think of it as — I just got to keep going.”

And it was that attitude, that drive to keep pushing and improving, which guided Pierson through a discouraging initial season in cardinal and gold.

It’s also what has now carried him to a place he admitted he couldn’t have quite imagined during last season’s struggle to simply get on the field long enough to make an impact.

Throughout the 2014 campaign, Pierson would appear in every game and actually started the final two contests — finishing the season with 29 tackles including 4.5 for loss. But he struggled to reconcile his limited role for much of the year with the expectations he held for himself.

For help, Pierson leaned on his family.

“I was talking to [defensive coordinator Wally Burnham] and [defensive line coach Stan Eggen], and they were telling me that they used to look out the window and see me talking on the phone all the time, and I didn’t know that they were watching me do that,” Pierson laughed.

“I was always calling my family back home and just talking to them about the hard time I was having, and what I needed to do. And they were telling me ‘Just stick it out.’ “

Pierson’s one-year-old daughter Jazlynn joined him in Ames in January and helped put things into perspective.

Following a disappointing 2-10 season for the team, but one in which Pierson came on during the final four games — registering 22 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks — the defensive end returned his focus to what teammates and coaches say he does better than any other player on the ISU roster.

Putting in work.

“Dale, it’s not even a question, he works the hardest,” said linebacker Jarnor Jones. “Just watching him motivates us, the 10 guys that’s out there with him.”

And Pierson, understanding that in his final collegiate season he would receive the chance to accomplish all the things he’d hoped for when he transferred from Pasadena Community College in 2014, made his goals clear early and often to anyone willing to listen.

“I looked up the record [for sacks at Iowa State],” Pierson said. “And I told some of you guys that I wanted to be the best defensive end that ever came out of here. And back then, I don’t think too many people really took it heavily.

“It’s a little different now.”

Pierson’s numbers speak for themselves, but there remains reason to be baffled by his early success despite the confidence both he and his teammates have in his work ethic and overall ability.

Standing at 6 foot 2 and only 250 pounds, Pierson’s size falls significantly short of the prototypical defensive end. Linebacker Jordan Harris said regardless of his physical stature, Pierson is pound for pound one of the best defensive ends in the country, adding that his ability starts with unique athleticism and ends with tenacity.

“He’s athletic. He’s fast too. And that’s hard for offensive linemen to block. It’s hard for anyone to block on this level, and he’s real good with his hands,” Harris said. “He’s got that engine, he’s not going to stop. I saw on film Dale running some plays down from behind. You don’t have defensive ends running plays down from behind.”

It doesn’t hurt that Pierson believes many offensive linemen paint a picture of him from only what they see on paper, which has proven through two games in 2015 to be a significant mistake.

“I think I make it work for me. I think that other offensive linemen, I’m not sure, but I kind of think that they see [my size and think,] ‘He’s not going to be as strong, or he’s not going be able to get my hands off him,'” Pierson said. “So I just use my quickness.”

Defensive coordinator Wally Burnham believes Pierson’s quickness, along with his other athletic attributes, make him the perfect sort of player to lead a revamped ISU defensive attack that has switched successfully to a 3-4 scheme.

The transition to the 3-4 style was predicated on getting more athletes on the field, and the resurgent pass rush — which has amassed a total of nine sacks through two games after bringing down the opposing quarterback only 15 times in 12 games last season — was the result the ISU coaching staff envisioned when contemplating the change.

Pierson is the embodiment of the coaches’ vision, which has already been realized in this young season.

“He’s just a tremendous, hard-working, over-achieving kid. He’s going to make plays,” Burnham said. “He doesn’t get knocked off the ball real badly and he doesn’t lose his gap. And he can still rush from an inside technique on a big, 300-pound offensive lineman, getting outside and rushing the quarterback.

“He’s got a lot of good traits for this defense.”

The defense’s sack total of nine through two games is tied for fifth in the nation, and Pierson’s five sacks already slate him better than halfway to his goal of the ISU record — set in 2006 by Shawn Moorehead, who tallied 8.5 sacks that season.

While the defense still has a lot to work on, namely slowing down the running game after the Hawkeyes dropped 260 rushing yards on the Cyclones last Saturday, it’s safe to say that the pass rush is back in Ames in a big way.

And around the campus, around the state and around the nation, people are starting to take notice.

“How ‘bout that?” asked ISU coach Paul Rhoads. “An Iowa State Cyclone is leading the nation in sacks. That’s something to take note of.”