AMES — Iowa State’s defensive line has gone from one of the weakest position groups when coach Matt Campbell arrived to arguably the strongest.
It hasn’t shown signs of slowing down in preparation for next season.
The Cyclones return JaQuan Bailey, who has already tied Iowa State’s career sacks record, Ray Lima, a first-team all-Big 12 selection and Eyni Uwazurike, who had 27 tackles and five tackles for loss in nine games.
The only notable loss along the defensive line was Bailey’s backup, Spencer Benton. Iowa State returns Lima’s backup, Jamahl Johnson and Uwazurike’s backup, Matt Leo.
Defensive line coach Eli Rasheed is excited about a couple other young guys who were true freshmen that saw time last year in Zach Petersen and Isaiah Lee. Lee will be a redshirt freshman next season because he played in four games and Petersen will be a true sophomore because he went over the four-game mark.
The Cyclones led the Big 12 in rush defense last year, allowing just 115 yards on the ground — more than 15 yards better than No. 2 Texas. Iowa State did it with having just a three-man front and three linebackers.
Rasheed still sees room for improvement.
“There are a lot of things we still have to get better at,” Rasheed said. “We need to get better at rushing the quarterback and keeping the quarterback in the pocket.”
Bailey was Iowa State’s only true pass rusher last season. He recorded eight sacks and the next closest returning defensive lineman was Matt Leo with two.
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Rasheed wants to get better at rushing the quarterback without his starters taking too many hits this spring. He said they each played more than 600 snaps last season so he doesn’t want them getting beat up now.
“We still have to fine tune the ins and outs of the game without really beating them up out here,” Rasheed said. “We’re working on hands, working on pass rush with Ray Lima. Same thing with Uwazurike. Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush.”
The added benefit of not beating those guys up in the spring is it allows the younger players like Petersen, Lee and others to step in and get good repetitions.
“The Peterson/en boys — you have Zach (Petersen) and Blake (Peterson) — Zach’s doing a great job,” Rasheed said. “Spencer Benton was really a key piece to our front — he did a lot of things for us. Petersen is stepping up, Cordarrius Baliey is doing a good job. Our early enrollee Blake Peterson is doing a great job.”
Rasheed said Petersen has added 25 pounds since the end of last season and is now up to 255 pounds. He hopes the added weight will help him handle the physicality that comes with playing on the line.
Petersen is an early enrollee from Beresford, South Dakota. He’s already at 255 pounds and he’s also 6-foot-4.
“He’s big,” Rasheed said. “He’s definitely big. Now, he’s still got a lot of high school stuff in his game. At his high school, he was the big man out there in South Dakota, so he’s learning to now, snap-for-snap, play physical every play. That’s hard for a kid that should be getting ready for his prom.”
But he brings something that Rasheed is looking for, and Rasheed isn’t shying away from putting out the possibility that Peterson could be a legitimate backup for next season’s team.
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“He has a great knack to rush the passer,” he said. “If we can get his run technique better, he’ll be a good No. 2 for us.”
Rasheed hopes with the added depth, the line can learn to dominate the game.
“We have to finish opponents and do a great job of winning in the fourth quarter,” Rasheed said. “When you look at any dominant defensive line, they take the game over. We have to affect the game the same way.”
The young guys now get to learn from a line that returns all of its starts from last season.
“Really credit Ray Lima and the seniors for the turnaround on the line,” Rasheed said. “They took coaching and applied it. It’s really an awesome group to coach.”
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