Iowa State football focused on rebuilding defense

AMES – Last season was a rare instance when Iowa State could control games with its defensive line and linebackers.

The Cyclones are hoping they’ve recruited enough depth under fourth-year coach Paul Rhoads to rebuild their front seven rather than watch it regress.

They’re not there yet though.

Iowa State loses three first-team All-Big 12 performers; linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein and lineman Jake McDonough, from a defense that finished third in the league in scoring in 2012.

In their place during spring practice are just two players with extensive starting experience and a ton of youngsters with an opportunity to crack the rotation. All that youth has led to some inconsistent efforts, including a scrimmage performance on Saturday that defensive coordinator Wally Burnham dubbed “ragged.”

The Cyclones, who went 6-7 in 2012, close spring practice with a public scrimmage on April 20.

“We’re not very consistent. We’ve got a lot of new parts out there. They don’t know how to play together yet,” Burnham said. “We’ve just got to get everybody lined up, reading the right things and everybody seeing the same thing and just basic football. We’re not there, and hopefully we’ll keep working hard enough that in the next seven days we can some of this stuff straightened out.”

In a league with extremely quick-hitting passing games igniting potent offenses, defensive lines that can disrupt quarterbacks are a must.

The Cyclones have a lot of work this spring in building a solid front.

Senior Willie Scott is the only starter back, though interior linemen Brandon Jensen and Walter Woods III also have significant experience. The coaching staff has always been high on 6-foot-7, 272-pound end David Irving, but he’s out for the spring.

The coaching staff is looking extensively at freshman Collin Bevins, a 277-pound tackle, and emerging junior end Cory Morrissey, along with freshmen Mitchell Meyers and Pierre Aka.

Iowa State seems to have enough depth on its line, and Burnham has been encouraged by its potential.

“I’ve been very pleased with the defensive front. Young kids, they’re more athletic. They’ve got some length, strength, movement and thing like that,” Burnham said.

The Cyclones’ defense was keyed by Knott and Klein for so long that it’s difficult to remember what it’s like without them.

Iowa State will lean on junior Jevohn Miller and senior Jeremiah George – who has been overshadowed by Knott and Klein for two years – to replicate the production lost at linebacker.

Burnham said Saturday that George is still trying to do too much. But Iowa State will look for leadership from George, who’s so vocal that Rhoads joked that he’s even loud in church.

“Jake and A.J., they babysat me for two years, three years,” George said. “Last year they let me be vocal, and this year I’m trying to be that guy for the rest of the defense.”

Junior Jared Brackens has moved from a traditional safety role into the top spot at Iowa State’s hybrid strongside linebacker/nickel back job. It’s designed to deal with pass-heavy offenses without sacrificing too much in stopping the run, and Brackens and Miller were two of the players Burnham praised for their progress.

Iowa State’s strength will be in the secondary, where three returning starters should be bolstered by a host of underclassmen at cornerback.

But the Cyclones defensive backs will likely get burned if they can’t get enough help from the front seven.

Iowa State has kept it simple this spring in an effort to both ease young players along and see who can execute the best in fundamentals. The Cyclones’ new-look defense is still a bit shaky, but Rhoads thinks they’ve got a shot to be there by August.

“It’s coming. There are a lot of new pieces and it shows. Lot of guys going in and out, trying to fill those pieces. But I’m happy with the progress. I’m really happy with how intent our kids have been every day they’ve stepped on the field,” Rhoads said.