Peterson: Iowa State's football evolution includes no more 'knuckleheads'

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Zach Peterson knew he had to get bigger and stronger to hang successfully with the big guys of major college football.
Randy Peterson, rpeterson@dmreg.com

AMES, Ia. — Every offensive coordinator on Iowa State’s college football radar knows what’s coming at them each and every Saturday:

Three defensive linemen. Eight defenders strategically placed in the middle and in the back end.

The math varies, depending on the opponent, but this much stays the same:

What could be the Big 12’s best 2019 defense starts up front — with one of the best nose guards and probably the best defensive end to ever play at Iowa State.

So, what must change, be altered or blown up for these guys to keep ahead of strategizing opponents?

“Well,” pondered defensive end JaQuan Bailey, whose first sack will break the school’s career record.

He fiddled with the small patch of hair on his chin before proclaiming, “really, nothing. We just have to get better at what we’re doing.”

Iowa State’s been doing that since Matt Campbell became the coach before the 2016 season. Quickly, the program has gone from the dregs of the Big 12 to playing in the best bowl game in school history. It’s a change that took place on the field — and in the locker room.

Changed alignment, different players, new attitude

“Oh my gosh, when we first got here, we had people on the team that just did not care at all — people that were doing stuff wrong, people that were doing their own thing, and people that weren’t listening,” defensive tackle Jamahl Johnson said. “From back then to now is a complete 180 with the football team.”

Johnson, a senior, committed to a scholarship when Paul Rhoads was the coach. He was one of six true freshmen to play for Campbell in 2016. He knows what he’s talking about.

“That first year, we still had some of those knuckleheads on the team,” Johnson said.

Yes, he might have been classified as one of them. His grades weren’t the best. He sometimes wondered why he didn’t play more.

“My head was all over the place,” Johnson said. “I made a 180-degree turnaround. My everyday routine changed. I know this year, being my last year, has to be the best. I feel like I’m a good player, (but) I need to become an elite player.”

He’s become a valued part of an elite defensive line that’s best known right now as a three-man front, but will also mix in some traditional.

“We’re very versatile, as far as four-down or three-down,” Johnson said. “We have more role players this year, especially with the guys coming up. We’re able to do more things in versatility (and) on third down.”

Best depth ever

Iowa State has had OK defensive line starters. Going beyond the first-teamers, though, was often a problem. This season is different.

“Our depth has some experience,” defensive line coach Eli Rasheed said. “It sure helps going into games, but we have to still develop that depth past the twos — to make sure we have some spares.”

Sophomore Zach Petersen, whose redshirt was burned last season, plays behind Bailey. Matt Leo, who started five games in 2018, is Eyioma Uwazurike’s understudy. Tucker Robertson, Johnson’s No. 2, played in 11 of 13 games last season. Isaiah Lee played behind Ray Lima as a true freshman.

The veteran depth is real.

“I feel like there’s a lot of teams out there that don’t have the depth like we do,” Johnson said. “We can keep guys fresh.”

Strong, workaholic farm guys

Bailey is from Jacksonville, Florida. Lima is a Los Angeles guy. Johnson played high school ball just outside of Minneapolis. Uwazurike’s from Detroit — and Petersen?

He’s from a farm in Long Grove, Iowa — and he’s certainly not alone.

Trevor Downing, a redshirt freshman offensive line starter contender, was raised on a farm outside of Creston. True freshman defensive end Blake Peterson grew up on a farm in Beresford, South Dakota.

That’s three linemen — two possible starters, and a 6-foot-4, 260-pound college rookie — who know the farm’s heavy-lifting routine as well as (if not better than) the playbook with which they read themselves to sleep each night.

“More of a farm kid is Blake,” Johnson said. “He’s a huge farm kid. Him and Trevor and Zach — those guys talk about farming all the time. Those farm guys — they grew up working; they have that mentality.

“It’s good to see them bring that to the field.”

Randy Peterson is the Iowa State columnist for the Register. Reach him at rpeterson@dmreg.com, 515-284-8132, and on Twitter at @RandyPete. No one covers the Cyclones like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines Register.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.

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Source: Des Moines Register