AMES — Iowa State’s defensive line is the Cyclones’ best position group.
The line features two All-Big 12 players in JaQuan Bailey and Ray Lima and the third starter is the most physically impressive in Enyi Uwazurike, who is 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds.
The success of the Iowa State defensive line isn’t just based on its starters. The line is one of the most heavily substituted positions to keep players fresh.
Iowa State’s second-string unit of Zach Peterson, Jamahl Johnson and Mat Leo could start at many other FBS programs — Leo and Johnson started a combined six games last season for the Cyclones. Peterson was one of four freshmen last season not to redshirt. He played in eight games and recorded four tackles.
“It’s awesome to have this depth because we can rotate a lot,” Johnson said. “I feel like there are a lot of teams that don’t have the depth that we do and it’s really beneficial for us. We can put guys in and keep guys fresh and keep the opposing offensive line down and tired.”
Iowa State was No. 8 in the nation in opponent rushing yards per attempt, allowing just 3.35, and was No. 3 in the Big 12 in sacks with 32. Both are testaments to how good the defensive line was last year and how much better it can be this year with every impact player returning.
“This is year three in our defense and the more time our guys spend in it, the more we can give them,” Iowa State defensive line coach Eli Rasheed said. “It’s good returning those guys because they’re going to know what they’re supposed to do, and they’re going to play faster and feel more comfortable.”
The defense centers around the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Lima. He doesn’t put up a lot of numbers, but he commands a double team every play and is the undisputed leader of the defense.
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Lima, a first-team All-Big 12 selection by ESPN last year, recorded 34 tackles and 3.5 tackles for a loss last season.
“With our defense, if you don’t have that guy in the middle, it’s hard to play our defense,” Rasheed said. “With Ray being who he is, he’s all about the Cyclones.”
During media day on Aug. 1, Campbell credited Lima for helping turn around Iowa State’s program. Johnson, a senior, remembers what it was like before the Cyclones turned the corner.
“When I first got here, we had people that just did not care at all,” Johnson said. “People did stuff wrong, people did their own thing and people weren’t listening. From back then to now is a complete 180.”
Johnson said it changed when the Cyclones went to the Liberty Bowl in 2017.
“That first year we still had some of those knuckleheads on our team.”
What’s the defensive line position group like now during practice and film sessions?
“The standard in the defensive line room is that if you don’t do something right, you stick out like a sore thumb, now,” Johnson said.
They all say they’re the closest they’ve been. Peterson is learning from Bailey, who has already tied Iowa State’s all-time sacks record with 18.5.
“I learn a lot from JaQuan,” said Peterson, a North Scott grad. “It’s mostly pass-rush stuff. Coming from where I came from, a pass rush wasn’t really a thing, you’d just bull rush people. JaQuan is a really technical dude, so I watch his footwork a lot. His hands, he’s really good at staying away from people. He’s much more fluent.”
While Uwazurike is physically impressive, Leo looks like “a Greek god” at 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds, according to head coach Matt Campbell.
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Last season, in his backup role, Leo recorded 19 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks and five quarterback hurries.
The Australian had shoulder surgery in the off eason to clean it out, but he spent a lot of time in the film room to get his football understanding better.
“Matt’s done a great job,” Rasheed said. “Matt has taken off. He just has to maintain his body and get himself to Saturdays.”
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