Editor's note: The Iowa State Daily Sports Desk will have a spring preview of each position group for the Cyclones heading into the 2021 season. You can find other position group stories here.
Following a 2020 season that saw the team make a Big 12 Championship game appearance for the first time in program history and its first appearance and win in a New Year’s Six Bowl Game, Iowa State is expected to build off of that and have an even better 2021 season.
Part of this is because of the returning experience it has and the depth that has been created because of that, including the cornerback position on defense.
The Cyclones return three players who have started at least 10 games at cornerback, including redshirt senior Datrone Young, senior Anthony Johnson Jr. and redshirt junior Tayvonn Kyle.
Johnson, who has the most starts of Cyclone corners with 28, has taken on a leadership role. Meanwhile, Young is “as confident as he’s ever been,” and both have added some weight this offseason.
Johnson taking on a leadership role
With Johnson having the most career starts of any corner currently on the roster, he is the most experienced corner Iowa State has and figures to be one of the leaders in the Cyclone secondary.
Iowa State cornerbacks coach Matt Caponi said Johnson has now begun to take on a leadership role.
“Anthony has grown a lot not only as a football player but as a person,” Caponi said Wednesday. “He's really adapted the role of the leader in the group and leads by example.”
Caponi said he challenged Johnson, and with him having the most starts among the cornerback group, he had to become a leader by default.
“It was something that I felt that could push him forward and really give him confidence. He took it, he knew he had to change some of his habits off the field, and I think challenging him with that leadership role allowed him to do that and allowed him to be in the position he is right now," Caponi said.
In his three seasons at Iowa State, Johnson has played in 36 games, starting 28 in a row.
The St. Petersburg, Florida, native totaled 128 tackles and 20 pass breakups in addition to being a two-time All-Big 12 Honorable Mention.
Johnson was described as a “second coach” by Caponi.
Johnson said the transition into becoming a leader was easy for him.
“I think I've been doing a great job leading these guys early on just getting the younger guys in, watching film and really breaking down the defense with them and bringing everyone along,” Johnson said. “Not just making myself better, but making everyone around me better so we can be one of the best cornerback groups in the nation.”
As for his goals in 2021? It’s simple.
“My mindset going into year four is to play my best ball to establish myself as one of the best corners in the nation,” Johnson said.
Young’s next step
Right behind Johnson, in terms of experience at the collegiate level, for Iowa State is Young, who has 17 career starts and has played in 32 games.
“His confidence is at an all-time high,” Caponi said.
Young’s starts are spread out through his three years at Iowa State.
The Delray Beach, Florida, native started in three games his freshman year, eight his sophomore year and seven his senior year.
Part of this has been due to injuries he’s suffered during the season, like his freshman year, which was cut short after a shoulder injury ended his season, and in the offseason as well.
“He's coming off back-to-back shoulder injuries that hampered his offseason progression, so this is the first time he's really had a true offseason,” Caponi said. “He's one of those guys that’s technically sound all the time, but he's experienced and he's really savvy.”
Young said the emphasis this spring has been placed on improving technique.
“What our focus is on this spring is just working on technique better and each and every one of us and just being a better player,” Young said.
As far as what the goals for the position group are, Young getting more interceptions is one of the group’s big goals in the upcoming season.
“Really, that's one of our top goals we got at the top of our board,” Young said. “As a corner, we encourage that all the time, we should have picks."
Last year, Iowa State had nine interceptions in 12 games, five of which were made by linebacker Mike Rose.
Cornerbacks getting stronger
Before the beginning of the 2020 football season, Iowa State brought on Dave Andrews as the new strength and conditioning coach.
Since then, many players and coaches, including Head Coach Matt Campbell, have praised the state of the strength and conditioning program.
Caponi credited Andrews with Johnson and Young’s development as Caponi said both players have put on about 10-12 pounds this offseason.
“What coach Andrews and those guys are doing just from a workout standpoint has been huge in their development,” Caponi said. "I think those guys have done a really good job of focusing on nutrition, which is a huge part, especially when you're a smaller guy and you have a really high metabolism, you got to put the right stuff in your body, especially within a certain timeframe.”
Caponi also credited Rachel Voet, director of sports nutrition for football, with this as well.
Because of COVID-19, college football teams didn’t have the chance to have spring practice and had to work out from home.
This year that’s not the case, and Johnson said he is “ecstatic” about having spring practice and talked about how he is feeling physically right now.
“I am so ecstatic, like we got a full offseason with coach Andrews, we're not even done, and physically I'm the fastest I've ever been, more explosive than I've ever been from my waist up,” Johnson said. “Mentally, we got that aspect last year, but I think I'm even growing mentally more and more each day."
In addition to Johnson and Young putting on weight, Caponi said sophomore T.J. Tampa has put on about 10 pounds this offseason as well.
“T.J. had a great fall camp, kind of hit a little bit of a freshman wall and had a really good ending to the season, he's another kid from a nutrition standpoint and doing things off the field and in the weight room, he's put on about 10 pounds as well,” Caponi said.
Tampa played in nine games in the 2020 season and started in five, playing on special teams and defense, totaling five tackles in his freshman season.
Before playing for Iowa State in 2020, Tampa, a St. Petersburg, Florida, native, had played wide receiver in high school and made the transition to defense in the summer of 2020.