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AMES — Every week, the Iowa State football coaching staff had to weigh the pros and cons.
Would it be worth the price of burning cornerback Arnold Azunna’s redshirt if they were in a pinch? He was in all the practices and meetings, preparing as if he would be in the rotation. Sometimes the discussions were pretty close in favor of playing him.
In the end, Coach Matt Campbell’s philosophy prevailed. It’s better to play a kid too late rather than too early.
“It was always that close every week,” said cornerbacks coach D.K. McDonald. “We were an injury away from one of our guys going down and him being the next guy in there to help us out.”
What kept Azunna’s redshirt intact was a healthy backfield, which is paying dividends this fall. The 6-foot, 194-pounder is slotted as the backup left corner behind junior D’Andre Payne, and said waiting a year to play was the best route.
Azunna is a native of Grand Prairie, Texas, and was a Class 5A second-team all-state selection as a senior at Lake Ridge with 35 tackles, three forced fumbles, three interceptions, one fumble recovery and 10 pass breakups.
“I gained a lot,” Azunna said. “A lot of knowledge just watching (junior cornerback Brian) Peavy, Payne and all the seniors do their thing on the field. I learned a lot from them and I think I’m ready.”
Peavy and Payne are the unquestioned starters in the cornerbacks room and have shouldered the leadership duties, but Azunna’s name has been tossed around as a difference maker since last fall camp.
The opportunity Azunna had to bridge his time between high school and Iowa State as a redshirt was invaluable, particularly because he was able to spend so much time practicing with the likes of Payne and Peavy. It taught him to become more patient.
“I learned a lot of lessons from them,” Azunna said. “I made a lot of mistakes, too, so it opened my eyes to the game a lot just going against the big receivers and all that. It just helped me be a better corner.”
“He’s come along this summer,” Payne said. “He’s been working very hard getting in that playbook as well as working on his technique every day. He’s a real physical player and that can really help us out, too.”
Iowa State was No. 74 in the FBS last season in passing defense (234.8 ypg) and No. 82 in interceptions (9). Only Jomal Wiltz and Nigel Tribune departed in the offseason, and if Azunna can emerge as a consistent fill-in for Peavy and Payne, the Cyclones could see those numbers get a boost.
“(Azunna’s) another mature guy learning the speed of the game,” Peavy said. “He’s a guy that had raw talent and just needed the experience. Getting those snaps has really developed his game.”
Junior De’Monte Ruth (5-10, 170) is Peavy’s backup on the right side and redshirt senior Thadd Daniels is entering his second season in the system, but Iowa State has been able to build young depth in its last two recruiting classes.
Redshirt freshman Jatairis Grant and true freshmen Richard Bowens III and Keontae Jones are a few other names to watch. Jones, the younger brother of ISU wide receiver Deshaunte Jones, can play safety and cornerback.
As a senior at St. Mary’s in Detroit, Bowens tallied 35 tackles and five interceptions, and was a top-60 cornerback nationally, according to Scout and Rivals. Bowens, 6-foot and 177 pounds, arrived in Ames in January and participated in spring practices, and persevered through the challenges of leaving home early.
“A couple months ago he was riding a school bus and all of a sudden he’s in winter workouts against some of these grown men, so that was a tough transition,” McDonald said. “But Richard is extremely intelligent, he figured it out quickly, did a great job in the classroom and he was smart enough to get around the right people to mentor and kind of go after and it really helped him out a lot.”
Bowens, who was a back-to-back state champion in the 300-meter hurdles, always had speed. Now he’s added strength.
“He always had the confidence,” McDonald said, “and now that he’s got his weight up to where he wants to get it to, you can tell that now he’s kind of got his grown man confidence about him which is really fun to see.”
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