ISU defense revamped with junior college presence


Junior linebacker Jordan Harris celebrates after winning the Cy-Hawk Series at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Sept. 13. Harris is a part of a change in the ISU defense that sees eight junior college transfers. 

Luke Manderfeld

ISU defensive coordinator Wally Burnham and recruiters on the ISU football team set out to find players who could make an immediate impact on the defense while recruiting the last couple of seasons.

Thus far, that mission is coming along nicely. 

The Cyclones have seen eight junior college transfers take their first snaps during the 2015 preseason, including three redshirts from last season. Coaches and players said the transfers are already having the effect the team was looking for on a defense that struggled throughout the 2014-15 season.

Iowa State ranked 115th in the NCAA last season in points allowed, conceding nearly 38 points per game. It was thanks in large part to the run defense, which gave up 246.2 yards per game on the ground, ranking 120th in the NCAA.

ISU coach Paul Rhoads is sure his defense will look better than it did last season, citing the junior college players as the main reason.

“There will be a lot of new faces on the field in 2015,” Rhoads said. “And we’ve seen enough from a group of them already that we feel that, without a doubt, we’ll be better.”

Defensive lineman Demond Tucker should go a long way in helping to back up that statement.

Tucker has risen to the top of the ISU defense, making considerable strides in fall camp. His name has been routinely thrown out by Rhoads and both coordinators as a player who has separated himself from the field.

Tucker, a 6-foot, 296-pound redshirt junior out of Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi, was a three-star recruit highly touted for his strength.

Coaches at Iowa State have taken notice.

“I see Demond Tucker, an outstanding nose [guard],” said ISU offensive coordinator Mark Magino when asked about players on the other side of the ball. ”He’s quick, he’s strong, he’s compact. He’s hard to block, he uses his hands really well.”

Tucker hasn’t just impressed with his defensive prowess, but also with his leadership. Coaches said Tucker can be heard at practice just as much as he can be seen.

“[Tucker] is active both in mouth and in action,” Rhoads said. “That’s the spirit that we need. He’s not afraid to be a ‘rah-rah’ guy. He’s not afraid to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we got to do this or we got to do that.’ That’s encouraging to see.”

Redshirt junior linebacker Jordan Harris, who attended Copiah-Lincoln Community College with Tucker, has made inroads on the defense as well. The Cyclones didn’t see as much progress as they would’ve like out of Harris during the 2014 preseason, leading to a redshirt for Harris.

This season, Harris will trade his spot on the sideline for one right in the middle of the action as a starter. 

“[Harris] certainly is a lot more comfortable and confident within our system and what his role and concepts are than he was a year ago,” Burnham said. “Light years ahead of last year.”

Lining up at middle linebacker, Harris’ strength and physicality have stood out during the preseason.

Fellow junior college transfer Jarnor Jones, who will play the nickel position, said he gets “chills” when Harris hits someone.

“It hurts me when he hits other people sometimes,” Jones added.

Not every transfer addition will provide an immediate impact, though, as some are a few steps behind the curve as the season approaches.

Defensive linemen Bobby Leath and Jhaustin Thomas haven’t improved much throughout pre-season camp and weren’t helped by a late start. Unlike many of the other transfers, neither attended summer camp, putting them at an immediate disadvantage.

Rhoads said it may take about six games for Leath and Thomas to get worked into the system.

Burnham added that some of the junior college players will have a bit of a “learning curve” early in the season as they adjust to Division I football.

“Those kids are still way behind,” Burnham said after the final scrimmage of fall camp. “They’re going to be very limited to the number of plays they can play early and we’ve got to sit down and do a good job of figuring out how many reps they’re going to get and when they’re going to get them.

“But we’ve been pleased with all of them.”