Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa State's Big 12-best defense looks for consistency

Cyclones know there is still room to improve in 2019

Iowa State defensive back Greg Eisworth, left, and linebacker Marcel Spears pose for a photo during football media day Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in Ames. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)
Iowa State defensive back Greg Eisworth, left, and linebacker Marcel Spears pose for a photo during football media day Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in Ames. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)

AMES — Iowa State’s defense largely will look the same in 2019 as it did in 2018 — just with the desire for more consistency.

The Cyclones return eight of 11 starters and 10 other players who saw significant playing time.

While Iowa State’s defense was largely good in 2018, defensive coordinator Jon Heacock pointed to games where it lacked.

Iowa State surrendered 245 yards on the ground to Kansas State and Texas gained 179 rushing yards. In the passing game, Baylor put up 359 yards and Oklahoma 348.

“I think there were a lot of games last year where we didn’t play great defense. I think that’s fair,” Heacock said of his Big 12-best defense. “I would really hope that we would become consistent. I think we’ve made great strides, but I think the consistency to play really solid defense all the time is the next step. You become really good at what you’re doing when everybody knows what you’re doing. That’s the point we’re getting to.

“People understand what we’re doing. Our guys know it better than they’ve ever known it and I think the improvement in consistency is what I’ll really be looking forward to in camp.”

Heacock will continue to pressure his players with details, fundamentals, gaps, fits and coverages, all in a desire for better consistency.

“That’s the one thing we lacked at times a year ago,” Heacock said. “If you’re going to play great team defense, you have to play the same, and better, every game.”

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With 10 returning players who played significant snaps, it’s reasonable for Heacock to expect more consistency.

The only wholesale change in personnel on the defensive side for Coach Matt Campbell and Heacock is the SAM linebacker spot going from Willie Harvey to redshirt freshman Will McDonald.

The beauty of what Heacock has created is the ability to know how to use his players. Campbell tells the story every year — multiple times a year — of how Heacock threw away his entire playbook after the Texas game in 2017 and drew up a new one during the bye week that better used his players’ strengths.

That’s how the three-man front, three linebackers and three deep safeties defense Iowa State runs was born.

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Heacock will continue to cater to his players’ abilities with McDonald in the mix.

“Through fall camp, we have to find out what he can do and make sure we play according to him and not just play all to Ray Lima and JaQuan Bailey,” Heacock said. “We have to be smart about that.”

Heacock’s ability to change his defense and its plays while maintaining his defensive principals is something Campbell admires.

“That’s the thing about what we are defensively, we’re constantly evolving — and at times, having to change,” Campbell said. “That’s something you’ve seen us do. So much credit goes to our defensive coaching staff and coach Heacock.

“The neat thing for us is we do have some new personnel. We have to evaluate that personnel and how it fits. Who are your players, what formations can we get in and obviously what plays can you call and run? What we’ve done a great job of this last year-and-a-half is finding out what our players can do and put them in a position to do that. As long as we continue to do those things, we’ll continue to be a good football team.”

So, what can McDonald do?

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Well, Lima said McDonald does standing backflips in the middle of conversations just for fun. WILL linebacker Marcel Spears said if McDonald sees someone do something athletically, he will try it and get it right on the first try.

Long story short, his teammates defined him as a freak athlete.

“He’s a specimen,” Spears said of the 6-foot-4, 230-pound McDonald. “He’s fast, strong and big. His ‘want to’ to get better every day is really the most important thing. Wherever we put him, he wants to be the best at it.”

McDonald transitioned from a defensive lineman to a linebacker during the offseason so the staff could better use his athleticism.

“Athletically, he’s a talented guy — he can run and cover in space,” Heacock said. “That position is different than it used to be. Those guys are asked to cover, asked to play in the box — everything. He and the WILL position are really mirrored positions for us.”

McDonald is a player who has a chance to be a difference maker.

“He has a lot of ability — the sky is his potential,” Lima said. “We’re just trying to nurture it and help him grow in the film room and learning the plays and learning what his responsibility is. But as far as him coming into this season — there’s nothing that can stop that guy.”

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