116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
AMES — On paper, Iowa State’s defensive line is the position group with the most question marks.
It lost two key defense tackles in Josh Bailey and Latrell Bankston and the school’s all-time sacks and tackles-for-loss leader in defense end JaQuan Bailey.
Even with those losses, the Cyclones return key players at every position and the coaching staff believes it has depth at all three defensive line spots.
The biggest returning name is Will McDonald, who hasn’t started a game. McDonald has been a pass-rush specialist the last two years and led the nation in sacks last season with 10.5.
McDonald will be relied upon to step into a starting role with JaQuan Bailey’s departure. McDonald has prepared for his new role by putting on 15 pounds, bulking up to 245.
Defensive line coach Eli Rasheed said McDonald has looked as impressive as ever with his added responsibility against the run.
At the other defensive end spot, Iowa State returns four-year starter Enyi Uwazurike.
Uwazurike has never been one to put up big numbers but, he’s rarely out of position and often funnels plays to Iowa State’s impressive linebacker trio.
“Having Enyi back for another year has been incredible for our room,” Rasheed said. “We have some youth in that room and he’s doing a tremendous job bringing those guys along.”
Uwazurike is undoubtedly one of the key leaders for Iowa State’s defense but at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, his versatility along the line provides value. He can play either defensive end spot or defensive tackle.
Uwazurike was used sparingly at defensive tackle last season because of all the pieces the Cyclones had at the position, but with two departures, he could be needed there this fall.
Iowa State returns Isaiah Lee, who started nine games last year at defensive tackle. But outside of him, the Cyclones don’t have proven depth, so Uwazurike’s versatility will be needed.
The Cyclones do have redshirt freshman J.R. Singleton as a defensive tackle who has impressed the staff.
“J.R. is going to be a really good player,” Rasheed said. “He gives you all he can on the field. And when he’s spent physically, he’s going to walk up to the defensive-line room and study that day’s film. And the next day, he’ll do it all over again.”
With the way the staff talked about Singleton, it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts the season opener against Northern Iowa.
“I think J.R. Singleton is one of the most talented young players in our football program,” head coach Matt Campbell said. “He has tremendous ability and is a rising star.”
Rasheed likes to have three deep along the defensive line and, if Uwazurike stays outside, true freshman Howard Brown, a high school quarterback, would be that third piece.
“Howard Brown has come in and he is, in my opinion, cut out of the same mold as J.R. Singleton,” Campbell said of the 330-pound Brown. “Howard is very mature and he’s as big as big can be — sometimes too big — but he can run and he can play quarterback, so maybe we’ll do a little bit of that.”
Rasheed also said unprompted that Campbell has been using Brown for goal-line situations during fall camp as a quarterback.
Last, but certainly not least, is reserve defensive end Zach Petersen. Petersen started for JaQuan Bailey in 2019 when Bailey was out for the season with an injury, but has since been a key reserve for the Cyclones. Because he’s a reserve, Campbell is often asked if Petersen is underrated or an unsung hero.
“I kind of chuckle at that,” Campbell said. “I’ve heard that multiple times. But if you go back and watch our football team play and Zach Petersen, he’s been exceptional for us. … I really feel like Zach Petersen is one of the best defensive linemen we’ve coached since I’ve been here.”
Uwazurike said Petersen, a senior, is one of the best leaders he’s been around.
“He reminds everyone what hard work is every day,” Uwazurike said. “He’s one of my favorite defensive linemen. He plays hard and he’s probably the smartest guy we have in our room in terms of the playbook. If there’s something I don’t know, I know for a fact he knows it. I still go to Zach Petersen to this day. And when we go to practice, he’s right with me, the first in line. He coaches up the younger guys and he’s doing as much as possible. He’s just as much of a leader as I am in our room. It’s great to have him by my side.”