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.
Iowa State's defense has grown to become a strong complement to its high-powered offense over the last three seasons behind some of the program's most impactful players like Greg Eisworth, Mike Rose, Ray Lima and many others.
And when it comes to all of the history made in the 2020 season, this narrative didn't change, as Iowa State's defense played pretty good football. How good? Try top of the Big 12 good.
Iowa State boasted the second-ranked defense in the Big 12 a season ago, allowing 21.4 points a game, while ranking as the number-one rushing defense in the conference by allowing opponents to rush for an average of 103.1 yards per game.
A big piece of that 3-3-5 look was the play of the defensive line led by Iowa State's all-time sack leader JaQuan Bailey, who helped the Cyclones finish third in the Big 12 with 29 sacks overall in 2020.
Iowa State defensive line coach Eli Rasheed, as well as Zach Petersen and Enyi Uwazurike, spoke with the media Monday to break down where the defensive line room is at this spring and what the outlook is going into next season.
Will McDonald enters the spotlight
When you have a program record setter such as Bailey in front of you on the depth chart, a name like Will McDonald has a chance to fall under the radar.
The only difference is, McDonald's production has been anything but pedestrian over his last two seasons.
McDonald not only led the Big 12, but was tied for first in the nation with Jordan Strachan (Georgia State) last season with 10.5 sacks. The redshirt junior's 17.5 career sacks ranks third in school history and could very well pass Bailey when it's all said and done being just eight sacks away.
And while he was named First Team All-Big 12 last season after his conference-leading sack numbers, Rasheed said 2021 will be McDonald's first chance to step into the spotlight. And with that comes more reps and playing time, but also more attention from opposing offenses.
Rasheed said McDonald has a natural ability to rush the passer, but views the springtime as a chance to fine-tune his game to make him even more efficient in getting to the quarterback.
In Rasheed's assessment of McDonald, it all starts with his point of attack and his ability to gain leverage even before the ball is snapped.
“We’re preparing him really I guess you could say for 'the worst' and pouring that into him now and seeing if he can handle that," Rasheed said.
Enyi Uwazurike, McDonald's teammate, has been around him long enough to have seen how good his game is. Uwazurike is not only impressed, he said McDonald fits a description he rarely pulls out.
“I don't say freak of nature often, but we got one," Uwazurike said.
Uwazurike said McDonald has shown the ability to bend with quickness and use raw power to take offensive linemen for a ride at times.
No JaQuan Bailey. No Latrell Bankston. No Joshua Bailey.
Iowa State's defensive line lost a good amount of production in the offseason, but so far this spring, those three departures have not been seen so much as big losses to overcome, but rather three opportunities the rest of the group needs to take advantage of.
Depth has been a blessing for the Cyclones in recent years, which is why Rasheed and the Cyclones see this spring as a chance to see recruiting pay off. Young players have a chance to step up. Rasheed hopes they take advantage.
“For us, man it’s all about your opportunities,” Rasheed said. “And as guys graduate and your opportunities are there, man it’s up to you to go grab those things and build trust in myself and the other coaches on this staff.”
For players who have been lower on the depth chart like Blake Peterson and Corey Suttle, both redshirt sophomores, or a senior like Cordarrius Bailey, this spring is a chance to earn that trust.
Zach Petersen has done the work to earn the trust of Rasheed and the coaching staff, playing behind Uwazurike last season at defensive end.
The Long Grove, Iowa, native finished with 19 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and a forced fumble.
And now that he's a senior, Petersen intends to use this spring to help as many young linemen out, especially when it comes to details.
The defensive line has worked on their fundamentals of stance, footwork, playing lower, hand placement and how to win on your first couple steps.
Petersen said fundamentals and precision is the difference between getting playing time and not, and with so many opportunities there for the taking, Petersen's ready to make sure they're all ready in case their chance comes.
“I want to take as many young guys as I can with me,” Petersen said.
Enyi Uwazurike's leadership
Uwazurike will be returning for his sixth season as a Cyclone this fall, choosing to exercise the NCAA's blanket waiver for graduating seniors due to COVID-19 impacting last season.
Now that he's back in the building and putting in the work, Rasheed sees a leadership role forming day by day.
“He’s coming out on fire,” Rasheed said. "He's really focused, he's competing in practice very high and I think for those incoming guys who have not been around a guy like that, man he's going to have great value in the summer and fall when those young guys get here.
"He's just a guy that gives you a great example of what five and six years look like as a senior."
Uwazurike's focus has been on getting better each and every day. Whether it's his body and what he puts in it or his weight room routine, Uwazurike is trying to build a pattern of leadership for young guys to follow.
Uwazurike said he's learned from some of the best, like JaQuan Bailey and Ray Lima, and has taken their lessons of how to connect with people and bringing it back.
Everybody’s different and how everyone likes to communicate can change, so Uwazurike said he's made strides to understand each of his teammates better.
When it comes to all of the budding talent the Cyclones have and are hoping to bring in, Uwazurike said it all comes back to them.
“That’s the biggest thing when we get new kids in here is to have them adapt to the culture around them,” Uwazurike said.