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Defensive back Anthony Johnson during the second half of the Iowa State vs. West Virginia Game Oct. 13, 2018. Iowa State defeated West Virginia, 30-14.

Iowa State football has⁠—on paper⁠—one of the best defenses in the Big 12 lined up for the 2019 season. Eight of last year’s 11 regular starters are returning, with the defensive line of JaQuan Bailey, Jamahl Johnson, Enyi Uwazurike and Ray Lima intact.

At linebacker, there’s intrigue with redshirt freshman Will McDonald, an “athletic freak”, who is being groomed to take over the spot left by Willie Harvey’s graduation. Mike Rose and Marcel Spears Jr. return as leaders and strong contributors, with Greg Eisworth, Braxton Lewis and Lawrence White back at the safety position.

There’s just one position on the defensive side of the ball with questions: the cornerbacks.

With senior leadership from Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne, as well as a growing youth presence from freshmen Datrone Young and Anthony Johnson over the season, Iowa State’s pass defense was one of the best in the Big 12 – even with Peavy competing with a torn rotator cuff for much of the 2018 season.

But Peavy and Payne are gone, leaving Young, Johnson and Arnold Azunna—who safeties Coach D.K. McDonald said Wednesday was working with his position group this fall—to pick up the game time and live up to high expectations.

Campbell called the position battle “wide open” during last week’s Media Day, with nothing locked down as of yet.

“It’s a wide open race in terms of who else is playing,” Campbell said. “There’s some really talented young freshmen. We’re at least confident that there’s good bodies.”

Young saw his season cut short with a shoulder injury suffered against Kansas after he had worked his way into the rotation. Johnson also saw playing time towards the back half of the season, giving valuable experience that Campbell said was very helpful to limiting the loss felt in their position.

Other than those two contributors, the Cyclones and new cornerbacks coach Matt Caponi are essentially working with a blank slate.

Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock cut a confident figure at Media Day, and said the Cyclones’ secondary will benefit from the experience everywhere else in the defense.

“We just have to develop some consistency,” Heacock said. “That’s the area that we’ll spend a ton of time on in fall camp.”

ISU v Akron

Iowa State defensive back Datrone Young will be one of Iowa State's corners, who are tasked with replacing the graduated Brian Peavy and D'Andre Payne.

Converted wide receiver and redshirt senior Amechie Walker—a former walk-on transfer from New Hampshire—has gained some attention from Iowa State coaches over the summer, vaulting up the depth chart and putting himself in contention for major playing time. Walker has the athleticism to make a difference, Campbell said.

The unknown quantities in the cornerback room—Walker included—are perhaps lucky that Eisworth, Lewis and White are still around and adding a veteran edge, but the group is feeling confident that they can step up and fill the shoes of Peavy.

Johnson said the competition in the position group will only bring positive things for the regular season.

“It’s very beneficial,” Johnson said. “We go on out there and we know that we going 110 percent each time, and we’re just getting better.”

Eisworth is happy with the progress the corners have shown in the summer, declaring them ready for the challenges the Big 12 will bring.

“Our young corners, man they’ve really stepped up huge this offseason,” Eisworth said. “I feel like they’re ready.”

If he ends up being right, then the Cyclones’ defense could go into the 2019 season with no noticeable weakness. That might be the difference between a championship game appearance and another trip to the Alamo Bowl.

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