AMES — Iowa State’s defensive line is probably its most improved position group since Matt Campbell took over as head coach.
The line is anchored by senior Ray Lima. Lima wasn’t an All-American or even an All-Big 12 selection last season, he doesn’t put up a lot of stats — he only recorded 25 tackles — and he goes about his business quietly.
But Lima is the heart and soul of the defensive line.
He demands at least two blockers every single play, he moves the point of attack and he’s turning himself into a leader.
Campbell wants more out of Lima on the field. Last season, Campbell routinely called Lima the defense’s unsung hero, but Campbell believes Lima’s next step is to split the double team and put pressure on the quarterback, or shed the blockers and stop the run at the line of scrimmage.
Off the field, however, Lima is already making an impact. He took fellow defensive tackle Jamahl Johnson under his wing and helped Johnson turn it around at Iowa State.
Defensive line coach Eli Rasheed said Johnson was extremely inconsistent. Inconsistent on the football field and inconsistent in the class room.
But with Lima helping guide the junior, Johnson has inserted himself into a starting position on the defensive line and his GPA went from 2.2 to 3.2 in one year.
Rasheed said that bond is present between all of the defensive linemen.
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Junior JaQuan Bailey is Iowa State’s premier pass rusher. He needs just eight sacks to break the Cyclones’ all-time sack record. Bailey recorded seven sacks last season.
Behind him is senior Spencer Benton, who originally walked on at Iowa State. Rasheed said nobody works harder every single play on the defensive line than Benton.
Bailey is a special talent, but Benton’s attitude and effort have put him in position to play.
“Those guys, you can go every other series and be fine,” Rasheed said.
At the other defensive end spot, redshirt sophomore Enyi Uwazurike has asserted himself as the clear leader ahead of Australia native Matt Leo.
Both will see playing time, but Uwazurike improved his football IQ to put himself in position to start.
The thing Rasheed and Campbell like most about the defensive line is its versatility.
They believe everybody except Lima has the ability to go inside or outside — including Kamilo Tongamoa, who is 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds. Tongamoa is Lima’s backup, but Campbell believes he’s so athletic he can play on the outside.
“All of our guys, we try to do different things — inside, outside, two-point stance, three-point stance — that allows us to play an odd front or an even front at any time,” Rasheed said. “All of our guys except Ray and some of the other bigger guys.”
Historically at Toledo, Bailey’s position has been in a two-point stance, and if Iowa State does play more four-man fronts, Campbell could stand him up on the outside and allow him to run free to the quarterback.
The depth and size is the main difference of the defensive line from when Campbell took over.
Even last season, Campbell didn’t have enough depth to even play a four-man front.
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Now, it appears he has a two-deep position group that won’t have much drop-off if a guy goes down due to injury.
Iowa State was one of the best rush defenses in the nation last season, allowing just 3.6 yards per carry and only 10 rushing touchdowns. But that was almost entirely due to Lima taking on two or more blockers and Iowa State’s impressive linebacker play.
In 2018, the Cyclones’ defensive line has an opportunity to play a larger role in the defensive run-stopping. And with the possible four-man front, the defensive line should be able to put more pressure on the quarterback as well.
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