AMES — You need a special mindset to play defensive back. Especially in the Big 12.
It’s inevitable, at some point during the game, a cornerback or a safety will get beat in a league that airs it out as much as the Big 12 does.
What’s important is how the players react after they’ve been beat.
Confidence and short-term memory are the two most important mental traits a defensive back can have.
Iowa State sophomore Anthony Johnson emerged last season for the Cyclones as a true freshman. He played in seven games and started in four last season. In those seven games he had 28 tackles and five pass breakups. He had the second most pass breakups on the team despite only playing in seven games.
“I believe in having short-term memory at the cornerback position,” Johnson said. “You can try to be perfect, but even the best get beat sometimes.”
When did Johnson develop his short-term memory?
“I’m not sure. I don’t remember,” he said with a smirk.
The Cyclones lost two key seniors in Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne but return players like Johnson and redshirt sophomore Datrone Young. Young had 12 tackles and two pass breakups in eight games before an injury at Kansas ended his season.
That’s right, the two most experienced Iowa State defensive backs are both sophomores.
“That was my challenge to them,” Iowa State cornerbacks coach Matt Caponi said. “Everyone is still saying that we’re a young position group, so I challenged some of those guys to increase their roles and build on what they did during last season and spring ball.
“I’ve been pretty happy with the development.”
One person who’s so happy he can’t wipe his smile off of his face is safeties coach D.K. McDonald.
McDonald returns 2018 Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year and first-team all-Big 12 safety Greg Eisworth.
“Greg has helped all our guys,” McDonald said. “He’s stepped up and become a leader of the secondary. Because of his play on the field, guys look to him naturally and he’s really taken some young guys under his wing. When you see how a guy like Greg works, it makes you go out there and work at that same level.”
Eisworth, a redshirt junior, led Iowa State in tackles last season with 87. He also had an interception and two forced fumbles.
The safeties also return redshirt senior Braxton Lewis, who started all 13 games last year as well as redshirt junior Lawrence White, who played in 11 games and started five of them.
Beyond those three, McDonald believes he has four or five other guys that have the ability to play this season.
“That’s the most we’ve had,” McDonald said. “There’s a lot of competition and a lot of depth, which is good to help out somebody like Greg who played a lot of reps and got a little dinged up at the end of the year. Now we feel like we have some guys who can come in and give him a breath for a couple of plays.”
And if Eisworth or White does get hurt, Lewis is familiar with all three of Iowa State’s safety spots.
“Braxton is so great because he can play all three of our safety positions — he knows what everybody is doing on the defense,” McDonald said. “What I appreciate about Braxton is it’s like having another coach out there to really help us all out and help bring the young guys along. That’s fun to have.”
One player in particular Lewis is guiding is Rice graduate transfer Justin Bickham. Bickham never played safety before, but the Iowa State coaches believe that’s where he can make his biggest impact.
McDonald said Bickham picked up the playbook incredibly fast.
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“I knew he knew the playbook when I could ask him a question and he could spit out the answer immediately,” McDonald said. “Then I really knew when other guys were coming to him asking him questions and he was able to teach other guys — that’s when I knew he really had it. He’s really smart. You can’t graduate from Rice and not be intelligent. And now that he’s on the field, we can see how he moves and how he covers.
Bickham says he watches film whenever he can get a moment of free time. He’ll watch film for 30 minutes before a nap, then he’ll wake up from the nap and watch more film. Before he goes to bed, it’s more film. He watches that day’s practice to see what he did wrong as well as last season’s games, so he can get a feel for how the position is supposed to be played.
Lewis is the one who played the strong safety position last year.
“I watched a whole bunch of film,” Bickham said. “And I still make mistakes, but if I’m going to make one, I’m going to make it going 100 percent. If there was a camera following me, you’d see I’d be watching film every second of the day. Learning a new position, that’s what I have to do.
“Braxton Lewis has taught me how to watch film the right way, especially at safety.”
Most grad transfers would want to pick a spot where they were almost guaranteed a spot. Not Bickham.
“I wanted to go to a school where I had to earn a spot and one that’s also competing for a championship and a good bowl game,” Bickham said. “This team fit me.”
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