As Matt Campbell enters Year 2 on the job in Ames, the offense should see major improvements. Jacob Park used the 2016 season to knock plenty of rust off after a couple years on the sideline. Also, Allen Lazard returns for his senior season and looks for consistency to boost his NFL Draft stock, while the backfield of David Montgomery and Mike Warren could be one of the best two-headed monsters in the Big 12. But if the Cyclones are going to make leap in the standings in 2017, the Iowa State defensive line will be the reason.
The Cyclones offense averaged 27.7 points per game last season, which was second-worst in the Big 12. Not good. But that number will increase by a few points this season and won’t be the reason to blame if ISU isn’t winning more games.
The Iowa State defensive line needed a boost from 2016. The Cyclones allowed over 218 rushing yards, which was third-to-last in the Big 12 conference. And unlike, say, Kansas, who allowed 236 rushing yards per game, that was often more of a case that teams were blowing out the Jayhawks, so the opponent would keep the ball on the ground. But don’t forget, despite only winning 3 games last season, the Cyclones lost 4 Big 12 games that were decided by 10 points or less. This was not a team that was routinely routed.
The first new face on the Iowa State defensive line is Ray Lima, a 6’3”, 310-pound defensive tackle by way of El Camino (JUCO) college in California. Iowa State beat out Oregon and Arizona for Lima’s services. Lima was a top-ten defensive tackle by Scout and 247Sports, and Matt Campbell made sure to point out Lima has agility for a guy his size, saying, “Ray is a big, physical run-stopper inside. He’s got great athletic ability to run sideline to sideline.”
This isn’t Big Ten football circa 1995. If you’re going to use 300-pound defensive linemen, they have to have sideline-to-sideline speed and agility, and that’s exactly what the Iowa State defensive line believes it’s getting.
Meantime, joining Lima at the defensive tackle spot is another JUCO, Kamilo Tongamoa, a 6’5” 320-pounder, who chose the Cyclones over Arizona State, Colorado and Purdue. Tongamoa was a top-30 JUCO player and the third-best JUCO defensive tackle in America. He had 25 tackles for loss and 9 sacks at Merced College last season.
Oregon and other Power 5 schools tried to poach Tongamoa late in the recruiting process, but he stuck with the Cyclones. Why? He told 247Sports, “What made me stick with Iowa State was, when I went on my visit with Ray Lima, I made a promise to him that I was going to sign with Iowa State when we were there. I told him on the visit if he were to verbal commit I would verbal commit and then from there it was history.”
The third piece to this revamped defensive line in Ames is Matt Leo, another top-50 JUCO prospect at defensive end. Leo is 6’7” and 265 pounds out of Arizona Western. Leo chose Iowa State over offers from Arizona, Oklahoma and Mississippi State. He’s a native of Australia and former rugby player who just started playing the football in 2015 at Arizona Western.
When you combine the run-stopping abilities on the inside of Tongamoa and Lima, along with the length and edge rush abilities of Leo, this Iowa State defensive line has a chance to wreck havoc on the rest of the Big 12 conference.
And while the potential is there for this group to be special over the next two seasons, Iowa State needs this unit to live up to expectations due to its likely weaknesses at the linebacker position. Outside of Willie Harvey, there isn’t much reason for confidence. Sure, Joel Lanning is a nice story as he makes the switch from quarterback to linebacker, but if you truly believe it’s going to be a smooth transition for him, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
If this defensive line can create pressure and get into the backfield without needing a ton of help from the linebackers, that would allow the linebackers to play more in coverage and drop back, helping an already potent secondary in the pass-happy Big 12 conference.
Regardless, it’s an exciting time for Iowa State fans. An offense that is a year older with most of its key personnel back in the mix, along with a defense that boasts an impressive secondary and a ton of upside on the defensive line means the Cyclones are done being a pushover in the Big 12.
But in a conference that plays a round-robin schedule that’s also seeing improvements from fellow bottom-feeder Kansas, how many wins will this translate into?
That remains to be seen.
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