AMES — Iowa State was set to start its spring football season next week, but the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world put that on hold.
That doesn’t mean talking about football should be put on hold, however.
The Cyclones return most of their key players on the defensive side of the ball, sans defensive linemen Ray Lima and Jamahl Johnson, who both played nose guard. The other key piece lost was linebacker Marcel Spears.
Lima and Johnson have been rocks — almost literally — for ISU Coach Matt Campbell and his staff on the interior of the line since they arrived in Ames. Lima was a two-time All-Big 12 selection as a junior and senior and was an honorable mention as a sophomore.
Lima never put up eye-popping stats, but he was an anchor in the middle and the glue that allowed defensive coordinator Jon Heacock to run his three-man front by constantly absorbing double teams.
Johnson started playing as a true freshman in 2016 and he consistently improved every season. In his senior season, he had 20 tackles and three tackles for loss.
The Cyclones have players waiting in the wings to compete for that spot in redshirt sophomore Isaiah Lee and redshirt senior Josh Bailey.
“They have been waiting for their opportunity,” Campbell said. “But when you have two guys like Ray and Jamahl that played all-conference football, it’s hard to crack the lineup. Those guys have been developing and waiting for their opportunity.”
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Campbell also brought in two players he thinks could make an impact — one sooner rather than later in junior college transfer Latrell Bankston.
“Latrell is a guy that maximizes his potential,” Campbell said. “He was the junior college national defensive player of the year and he’s had unbelievable success during his time in junior college. He’ll do a phenomenal job for our football program.”
Bankston won’t be a replacement for Lima or Johnson and he’ll likely do things differently. He brings more of a pass-rush ability. But that could also get him out of position at times when trying to fit the run, which is where Lima and Johnson thrived.
The other new piece Campbell is excited about is Gurnee, Ill., recruit J.R. Singleton.
“J.R. Singleton, I don’t know if there’s a better football player in this entire class,” Campbell said. “He led his team (Warren Township) to the Illinois state championship, he was the defensive player of the year in Illinois as a defensive tackle.
“He’s as special as anybody in this class.”
The battle for the starting spot was supposed to start in the spring, but that’s going to have to wait until fall camp.
“There will be great competition at defensive tackle and it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves,” Campbell said. “A lot of these guys do things that are completely different than what our guys do now, yet they have some of the same characteristics and traits that make elite nose guards.”
The defensive end positions for Iowa State are as solid as can be. JaQuan Bailey returns for his redshirt senior season after he broke his leg in Iowa State’s fourth game last season. He redshirted and Campbell said in February that Bailey was close to 100 percent.
Bailey already has tied the school record for career sacks and has been one of Iowa State’s best playmakers on the defensive line since he was a true freshman.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Bailey’s replacement when he got injured was Zach Petersen, who was more than impressive. Campbell said there were times last season when Petersen was Iowa State’s best defensive lineman. He ended his redshirt freshman year with 41 tackles and 5.5 tackles for a loss.
Will McDonald emerged as Iowa State’s go-to pass rush threat while Bailey was out, as well. McDonald, a redshirt freshman last season, started the year as an outside linebacker, but after Bailey’s injury, the staff moved him back to the defensive line where he played during his redshirt year.
In Iowa State’s last three regular-season games, McDonald recorded five tackles — all sacks. He also had two hurries and three forced holding calls in those final three games.
Iowa State’s other defensive end spot is manned by Enyi Uwazurike. Uwazurike was an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection last season as a redshirt junior after recording 32 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss.
His backup, with the graduation of Matt Leo, will likely be Corey Suttle, who redshirted last season.
“Corey Suttle really impressed during fall camp and he took advantage of his opportunities during practice,” Campbell said.