Warm Bodies

Iowa State working in several fresh faces along the interior of the defensive line. Coach Shane Burnham loves the competition and the chemistry

After an offseason straight from the Book of Exodus, Iowa State defensive tackles coach Shane Burnham is doing whatever he can to preserve and manufacture depth.

There's Devlyn Cousin, the sophomore atop the two-deep at nose guard, cross-training at defensive tackle, where he might start this fall. There's fifth-year senior Brandon Jensen knocking the rust off and working at both spots, too. Redshirt freshmen Robby Garcia and Vernell Trent step into roles they might not be ready for yet. Burnham is doing everything to help the light turn on for sophomore tackle Pierre Aka.

That's five names, none the type of talent of a Rodney Coe or David Irving, who've played their last games for the Cyclones. Burnham needs more than a handful of biggies to get through a 12-game slate.

Bring on the walk-ons, Ma'Kayle Phillips of Waterloo and Tyler Harmeyer of Ankeny.

"We've got six, seven bodies in the room right now and guys are gonna get nicked," Burnham said Wednesday. "They've all got to be ready. It's just the nature of the position, the bodies that are falling around. We had two guys last year (Coe and Irving) who knocked shoulders out. You get beat up inside."

The way Wally Burnham calls a defensive game, he needs his front four to manufacture their own pass rush. Burnham's not a huge fan of blitzing, especially with an inexperienced secondary.

Iowa State was unable to do that last year. The Cyclones were last in the Big 12 all the notable defensive metrics, including sacks (15) and rush defense (224 yards allowed per game). It'd be a mild shock if any of ISU's defensive tackles registered more than a sack in 2014, but that's not their job. They're not going to register many tackles, either, but again that's not their job.

It's about occupying a gap to free up a defensive end and taking on a double team without being steam-rolled downfield. Do that, and Burnham's 4-3 might experience a renaissance.

"We need guys to grow up fast," Shane Burnham said.

It helps to have the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Jensen back on the team after he left in the spring. A 12-game starter in 2013, Jensen's chalked up his hiatus to being ready to move on from football and onto the next chapter of his life, which includes marrying his fiancé (he got engaged over the summer). There are message-board rumors that Jensen first left the program because he didn't enjoy working with Irving and Coe, who skated the rules, and then returned when their exits were finalized.

Addressing that Wednesday, Jensen said: "That wasn't really a factor in me leaving or coming back. Those guys did their own thing, I did my own thing. It was more about me and the team."

Jensen is listed as the second-team nose guard but the indication Wednesday was that he'd start there while Cousin, a 6-foot-1, 300-pound stump would slide to three-technique.

It's not ideal, even for Cousin, who prefers nose because it's closer to the ball, but it's probably the best Iowa State can do, as long as Cousin can play the position effectively.

"It's a little adjustment," said Cousin, who played defensive end in high school. "Nose is a little more physical, three-technique is more technique and speed. I'm trying to get back into it.

"At the end of the day I think it'll be me and BJ because we bring a lot more experience to the table. He's played in a lot more big games. I've played in a few big ones. I feel like we'll both be on the field. I'm gonna keep competing, because we both can play nose guard, but but I feel we'll both be on the field."

Said Burnham: "[Devlyn's] one of our strongest guys as far as power. When he uncoils, he's knocking people back. He knocked a guy on his butt today. He's got that. What Dev doesn't do, still, is consistently play with pad level. When he takes his natural ability and transfers it with power, he's a son of a gun. But when he doesn't play with pad level, he's just a guy."

When the Cyclones signed Robby Garcia out of Jesuit Prep in Tampa in 2013, they told him he'd redshirt his first year then probably have to wait another year until consistent playing time.

"Then this happened," Garcia said with a smile. "And it's a different picture."

Garcia is currently listed as the starter at defensive tackle, though even he admits the depth chart at this point "isn't an accurate measure." He'll likely give way to Cousin, who ISU will try to wring 50 snaps out of per game, but the 6-foot-4, 280-pound redshirt freshman will play.

Thus far, reviews have been promising.

"He listens," Cousin said of Garcia. "He takes coaching very well. When coach t ells him to do something, he does it, and that's the end of it. He perfects his craft."

"Some guys get it and some guys it takes longer to get," Burnham said. "Robby was trained well in high school so I guess the folks down at Jesuit High School in Tampa did a great job. He came in knowing it, he plays with a hard edge about thin, and he wants to be a good football player. He doesn't make the same mistake often. He's coachable. You see him taking a drill to the field, if he makes a mistake he learns from it."

As Garcia says, he went from fighting to get onto the travel squad to taking first-team snaps.

"Now I have to get ready to play and get stronger, bigger and faster," he said. "That was my mentality when [Coe and Irving] started dropping. I had to grow up a littler faster, in a sense."

With the exception of Jensen, who's been around the block, they all do.

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