2009 Iowa State Preview - Defense
Iowa State CB Leonard Johnson
Iowa State CB Leonard Johnson
Posted Jun 28, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Iowa State Cyclone Defense

Iowa State Cyclones

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Iowa State Preview | 2009 Iowa State Offense
- 2009 Iowa State Defense | 2009 Iowa State Depth Chart
- 2008 ISU Preview | 2007 ISU Preview | 2006 ISU Preview

What you need to know: Last year's defense took its lumps in a big way throwing several young players to the wolves. On the plus side, this is now a veteran group with good depth all across the board and with the potential to do far more index the new coaching staff. Step one for the nation's 112th ranked defense is to find some semblance of a pass rush. There might not be a ton of talent on the front seven, but there will be more shooting of the gaps and lots more aggressiveness across the board. The secondary might be the team's most talented area, and after getting bombed on last season, it should be better now that there should be more help from the front four./span>

Returning Leaders
Tackles: James Smith, 85
Sacks: Christopher Lyle, 5
Interceptions: Leonard Johnson, 2

Star of the defense: Sophomore CB Leonard Johnson
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DT Austin Alburtis
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Ter'ran Benton
Best pro prospect: Johnson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Johnson, 2) FS James Smith, 3) LB Jesse Smith
Strength of the defense: Experience, Corner Talent
Weakness of the defense: Proven Production, Tackling

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
The strength of the defense was supposed to be the ends, but senior Rashawn Parker didn't do nearly enough with just one sack with 21 tackles, but he led the team with five quarterback hurries. The 6-0, 260-pounder has to become a more aggressive pass rusher, but the former linebacker hasn't done enough to use his burst to be a factor. He's tough and he works hard, and now the stats have to come.

Getting the start on the other side will be Christopher Lyle, a 6-4, 252-pound senior who was mostly known for a huge blocked field goal in a win over Iowa a few years ago before becoming the team's best pass rusher with a team-leading five sacks with eight tackles for loss and 38 stops. The former JUCO transfer was a backup last year, used as a pass rushing specialist, and now he provides the best hope for a line that needs to be far better.

6-1, 283-pound senior Nate Frere has the perfect size for the nose with the strength and experience to be a factor. But it hasn't all come together even with 26 tackles and a solid three sacks with 6.5 tackles for loss. Health has been the big problem over the course of his career, but he was a rock up front last season and will be the the anchor the rest of the defensive front works around.

Junior Austin Alburtis was a backup last year making eight tackles, but he also came up with an interception for a 61-yard return in the win over South Dakota State. With decent athleticism to potentially make up for the lack of size, the 6-2, 267-pound Alburtis needs to be active against the run as a key part of a rotation. 

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Bailey Johnson will be a key part of the rotation on the inside bring most size at tackle with a little bit of experience. He missed all year hurt after making nine stops in a limited roles as a freshman, but he has been a scout team star and at 6-3 and 272 pounds is a needed factor against the run behind Alburtis.

6-3, 290-pound sophomore Stephen Ruempolhamer is the team's biggest option on the inside, and while he's built to play tackle, he'll work on the nose behind Frere. He made eight tackles in his limited action last year, but he also came up with three tackles for loss. From Holland, he's still learning the ins and outs of being a steady defender, but he's a good athlete who should be decent in time.

The team needs more of a pass rush, and it's hoping for redshirt freshman Roosevelt Maggitt to help provide it. A decent recruit, the 6-2, 237-pound speedster had a nice spring game with a sack and two tackles for loss, and he'll try to grow into a specialist on the outside working in a rotation with Parker.
Watch Out For ... more of a pass rush. The coaching staff is quickly changing how the defensive front is going to operate. There will be more attacking, more shooting the gaps, and more of an attempt to get into the backfield. It's not going to always work, but there will be times when this group will come up with the big plays needed.
Strength: The coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Wally Burnham comes in from South Florida, while Curtis Bray, the line coach, is a good one. Combining with a defensive head coach in Paul Rhoads, the Cyclone line can't help but be improved. At the very least, it'll be more active.
Weakness: Sacks and talent. The Cyclones, as a team, came up with 20 sacks two years ago, and was worse last season with just 17. The pass rush has to start working, while there has to be non-stop motors at all four spots to make up for a glaring lack of talent. This group will have to make plays on hustle.
Outlook: Nothing worked last year as the Cyclones were desperately missing a consistent pass rush and didn't do much of anything against the run. Now it'll be all about shooting the gaps and making things happen behind the line, and while the ISU front four won't be very good, it'll be far more interesting to watch.
Rating: 5.5


Projected Starters
In a perfect world, everything flows through the middle of the ISU defense and into Jesse Smith. The 6-0, 231-pound senior was the team's second leading tackler with 84 stops, to go along with five tackles for losses, and he also showed he could be a factor against the pass breaking up a team-leading six passes. While the former walk-on isn't that great a pass rusher and he's not an elite athlete, he's a tough try-hard defender with a motor that's always running.

Back on the weakside is Fred Garrin, who had the unenviable task of replacing Alvin Bowen and came through with a nice season. He wasn't the surest tackler, but he finished third on the team with 63 stops with two interceptions and a sack with six tackles for loss. While he's not awful against the run, he's better in open space against the pass. Up to 230 pounds on his 6-2 frame, the senior should be stronger against the more physical teams.

Strongside starter Josh Raven has the potential to be the team's best linebacker in the attacking system, but he has to stay healthy. The senior tore his ACL to start out his career and was out for almost half of last year hurt. When he was on the field, he produced with 22 tackles, but he didn't do much as a pass rusher. The 5-11, 230-pounder has the range, but he has to show he can be counted on for a full season.

Projected Top Reserves: Combining with Raven on the strongside, and getting every shot at the starting nod this fall, will be Justin Rumple, a safety-sized defender who has been a decent practice player but has yet to do anything on the field. At 6-3 and 212 pounds, he has to be steady at getting into the backfield and against the pass when he gets his chance.

6-2, 230-pound Derek Schmidgall has been a strong special teamer throughout his career and was a playmaker whenever he was on the field for the defense. He only finished with 11 tackles, but he forced a fumble and he scored the team's only defensive touchdown with a pick-six against South Dakota State. He'll work in the middle behind Smith.

Watch Out For ... Raven. If he can stay healthy, he has the potential to be one of the team's top three tacklers. He's built for the strongside and he has the ability to be a top playmaker.
Strength: Veterans. Three starters are back, even though Raven missed most of last year, and this group of seniors is just experienced enough in Big 12 play to be able to take what the new coaching staff is giving them and apply it to a better season.
Weakness: Tackling. The numbers aren't all that bad, and there will be more sacks and tackles for loss, but there were too many missed stops or tackles made down the field. Being a bit more secure will be a bit step to helping out the poor run defense of last year.
Outlook: This group was serviceable last season, but now it should be solid with more responsibility and more room to work. The linebackers will get a chance to be more aggressive and active, and with the returning experience, there should be more big plays to make up for the missed ones. Depth is a major problem with reserves needing to see early time while some young players have to be developed for next year.
Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters
Sophomore Leonard Johnson took over the starting nod on the left side halfway through last season and will be the team's lock-down corner for the next three years. The 5-10, 189-pounder hits like a safety, finishing fifth on the team with 47 tackles, and he forced two fumbles and recovered three. Decent against the pass in his first season, he made up for getting picked on, at least a little bit, with two interceptions and four broken up passes. Known more for being one of the nation's elite kickoff returners, he should make more noise in the secondary once he gets back healthy from knee and hamstring problems.

Back on the other side is Ter'ran Benton, a starter throughout the first half of the season before serving as a key backup. He made 24 tackles, but didn't do nearly enough against the pass and got beaten too routinely. At 6-1 and 196 pounds, he has nice size, and the sophomore has enough experience to not make some of the same misreads and mistakes he made as a freshman.

Senior James Smith has been one of the team's top tacklers over the last few years making 79 stops two seasons ago and leading the way with 85 tackles last year with two broken up passes. At 5-9 and 191 pounds he's not all that big, but he's arguably the team's surest tackler and has some of the best wheels on the team. The only concern will be his durability, and his notoriety. He's good enough to deserve all-star recognition, but at his size he has to make sure he doesn't knock himself out. He missed all of 2006 with a broken leg.

5-10, 190-pound junior Zac Sandvig started the season opener last year but was relegated to backup duty the rest of the way. Very quick, he could be used as a punt returner if needed and has shown just enough to get a long look at the starting strong safety job. To keep the gig, he'll have to be a playmaker against the pass and will have to be a bigger hitter against the run after making 19 stops.  

Projected Top Reserves: Looking to take over the starting strong safety job right away is David Sims, one of the team's top recruits coming in from the JUCO ranks. Originally an Oklahoma Sooner, the 5-10, 212-pound junior is a ready-made defender who has seen enough time over the last few years, making 72 tackles for Butte C.C., to know what he's doing early on.

Pushing for time at the left corner spot as well as in a nickel and dime role is Devin McDowell, the brother of former ISU star, DeAndre Jackson. The 5-9, 177-pound junior is a fantastic athlete, but he needs more playing time making 16 tackles with an interception last year and 16 stops and a pick in 2007, too. He'll start out working behind Johnson.

Senior Kennard Banks made 18 tackles and broke up two passes in a spot-starter role. Able to be used in a variety of ways, the former JUCO transfer will see time at corner in a rotation with Benton and will see time in nickel and dime packages. The 5-10, 189-pounder has good hitting ability and could even move to free safety if needed.

6-0, 210-pound junior Michael O'Connell is a smart veteran with nice range at free safety. He came up with a good year as a backup making 22 tackles, but he didn't do much with the ball in the air. He could end up playing a little bit at strong safety if needed just to get him on the field; he's not going to push James Smith out of a job.
Watch Out For ... more production. After taking the lumps past year, the new scheme and more of a pass rush will help the cause. This won't be an elite secondary, but there should be more picks and more broken up passes.
Strength: Experience, and no more Gene Chizik. Not only are six players back with starting experience, but there's even more solid depth to count on. Chizik, the former ISU head man and Texas defensive coordinator, always left his defensive backs out to dry. His Longhorn teams gave up big numbers and last year's secondary didn't have much of a chance.
Weakness: Proven production. Things couldn't be any worse, right? That's what the prevailing wisdom was last year and the secondary gave up 277 yards per game after allowing 254 yards per outing in 2007 and 239 per game in 2006. The overall production will be far better. It can't be any worse. Those were the exact same words written last year here, and the Cyclones went from allowing 239 yards per game to giving up 254 yards per game and 24 touchdowns.
Outlook: There should be more of a pass rush, which will help the secondary immeasurably, and there's good experience after so many players were thrown to the wolves. The overall talent level is far higher here than it is in the rest of the D, and there will be times when the coaching staff does as much as possible to get five and six defensive backs on the field. If the tackling can be better, this could be the strength of the team, even if the numbers don't always show it.
Rating: 6

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Sophomore Grant Mahoney took over the kicking job  early on and was solid hitting 17-of-25 field goals. His range tops out at just below 50 yards, but he missed makeable kicks. He got better as the year went on hitting seven of his last eight kicks, and is expected to be a plus after his year of experience.

Senior Mike Brandtner is a good, reliable kicker who might not make any all-star teams, but he'll be a good one to rely on after averaging 41.6 yards per kick and putting 19 inside the 20 for the second straight year.

Leonard Johnson is one of the nation's top kickoff returners averaging 26.4 yards per try. He set the NCAA record with 319 return yards against Oklahoma State and has been good enough to be avoided by opposing kicking games. Michael O'Connell averaged 8.6 yards per try and has the quickness and ability to do even more. 

Watch Out For ... the special teams to be the team's biggest plus. The coverage teams need work, but the kicking game is rock-solid and the return game is special.
Strength: Brandtner pinning the ball deep and Leonard Johnson. Brandtner can air it out, but he's at his best when he can pop it up and put it inside the 20. Johnson will get his share of chances to return kicks, for good and bad.
Weakness: Punt coverage. As good as Brandtner is at hanging the ball up in the air, the coverage team should be better after allowing 12 yards per try. The kickoff coverage is fine, but nothing special.
Outlook: The special teams went from among the worst in America to a strength thanks to the emergence of Mahoney and Johnson. With so many areas of concern across the board for the Cyclones, winning the special teams battle will be a must.
Rating: 8