AMES — Iowa State doesn’t have many starting positions to fill in the back half of its defense.
The Cyclones lost linebacker Marcel Spears and safety Braxton Lewis to graduation. Every other starting linebacker, cornerback and safety returns.
Where there’s room for young guys to step in and make a name for themselves is in a backup role. Iowa State lost at least one No. 2 player from last season’s depth chart at each position group.
Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has proved he’s more than willing to platoon players if the backups have proved they’re capable.
Last season, Spears, an All-Big 12 linebacker, and Jake Hummel split snaps last year about 60/40 in favor of Spears.
Hummel will take Spears’ starting spot so Heacock and head coach Matt Campbell will be searching for someone to fill in at every backup role. O’Rien Vance’s backup at middle linebacker, Bobby McMillen, graduated and Mike Rose’s backup at strongside linebacker, Chandler Pulvermacher, left the program in the spring.
Sophomore Gerry Vaughn was a key special teams piece for Iowa State last season and at 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds he’s a bit undersized but could fill in a backup outside linebacker role.
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Redshirt freshman Aric Horne is in a similar boat, as Vaughn was a bit of an undersized linebacker at 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, but his name got mentioned a few times last year as a freshman who has stood out.
Iowa State’s linebackers are young — Hummel is the only senior and the only two juniors on scholarship are Rose and Vance.
Given the youth, Campbell might have to dip into the incoming freshman class to fill out the two-deep.
Two names to look out for are Cole Pedersen, from Leon and Hunter Zenzen, from Barnesville, Minn. Both Pedersen and Zenzen have good size for true freshmen. Pedersen is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and Zenzen is 6-foot-2 and 223 pounds.
At cornerback, junior Anthony Johnson will occupy one starting spot and the other will be occupied by either Tayvonn Kyle or Datrone Young.
Amechie Walker is the only cornerback on last season’s depth chart to graduate so there will be a lot of competition for that spot.
Kym-Mani King is the obvious choice to fill in and get a fair amount of playing time. He was third on the depth chart last year as a true freshman and played in all 13 games, recording seven tackles.
D.J. Miller is another option to be a backup cornerback. The staff burned his redshirt last season, as well, as he played all over the field as both a cornerback and safety.
In 11 games, Miller had nine tackles, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
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Defensive backs coach Matt Caponi said that both King and Miller have very high football IQs and that’s what allowed them to see the field early in their careers.
While we’re on the topic of Miller, he might not play cornerback at all next season because he could be one of Iowa State’s starting safeties.
There’s value in versatility and Miller brings plenty of that to the table, with his ability to play cornerback, star or safety.
The other young safety that could fill in Lewis’ role is Isheem Young. Young redshirted last season, but with Greg Eisworth’s injury, it was difficult for the staff to keep his redshirt on.
“Isheem Young continues to demand attention because when you watch him play, it’s really impressive,” Campbell said last season.
Young was a 4-star prospect out of Philadelphia and chose Iowa State over Georgia, Penn State, West Virginia and Baylor.
The Cyclones lost both Lewis and Justin Bickham, who split time at their safety role for much of last season, so there’s room for both Young and Miller if that’s what the staff elects to do.