AMES (AP) — At the end of last year, Iowa State looked relatively set at defensive line.
It all fell apart in the offseason.
Nose guard Brandon Jensen quit the team with a year of eligibility left, and starting tackle Rodney Coe was dismissed for violating team rules. Fellow tackle David Irving was kicked off the team after photos of him holding an uprooted stop sign in the midst of a campus-wide disturbance emerged on social media.
The Cyclones know they’ll need to find some stability along that line to have any shot at besting last year’s 3-9 record.
“It starts with effort, and that’s very evident with the group. Then you build upon that effort and try to add production to it,” Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads said. “Production to us is making all the plays that you’re supposed to make, disrupting other plays — whether it be in the run or the pass game — by getting pressure on the quarterback. With the effort that they’re giving and the skill development that’s taking place, I think they’ll have a chance to come a long ways...by December to where they were (at the start of fall camp).”
The good news for Iowa State was that Rhoads convinced Jensen to come back.
Jensen and senior end Cory Morrissey are about the only certainties the Cyclones have.
Jensen has 36 games of experience for Iowa State, including 12 starts a year ago, and he agreed to rejoin the team after an offseason chat with Rhoads.
Jensen was listed behind sophomore Devlyn Cousin on the initial fall depth chart. But Rhoads said Sunday during the team’s annual media day that Jensen and Cousin will work with the starters this week as the interior linemen in Iowa State’s 4-3 scheme.
The competition to join Jensen and Cousin inside includes redshirt freshman Robby Garcia and sophomore Pierre Aka, who barely saw the field a year ago.
“He’s quickly caught up,” Rhoads said of Jensen. “The more he gets back into that flow, the more he starts pedaling that bike, I think the more leadership we’ll get out of Brandon.”
Morrissey represents the closest thing the Cyclones to an All-Big 12-type lineman right now.
The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Morrissey was honorable mention all-league in 2013. He had 52 tackles, three forced fumbles and a recovered fumble.
Morrissey is slotted as the starting right end, with sophomore Mitchell Meyers poised to start on the left side.
“He so plays so hard. That, along with his leadership, makes us a different group,” Rhoads said of Morrissey.
The Cyclones also signed four junior college defensive linemen in the offseason in an effort to plug holes.
One of them, Terry Ayeni, blew out his knee and is likely lost for the year.
Iowa State will need the other three; Dale Pierson, Trent Taylor and Gabe Luna, to be ready to contribute by the end of fall camp.
Pierson, a 260-pound end, was coveted by multiple high-major programs looking for a quick fix on the edge. Taylor, also an end, spent 2012 at Tennessee before a detour at Butler Community College in Kansas.
Luna is already listed as Morrissey’s backup, which means he’s likely in the rotation.
“Trent Taylor and Dale Pierson have opened our eyes. They’ve had a nice first week,” Rhoads said.
The performance of Iowa State’s defensive line might be the single biggest factor in determining whether the Cyclones compete for a bowl bid. But Morrissey is confident that the Cyclones have enough to compensate for what they lost in the offseason.
“We’ve constantly been making strides and improvements. Even with the losses, we didn’t have a setback. We’ve all just been keeping moving forward. You can talk about people leaving, skills sets and young guys. We’re always making progress,” Morrissey said.