Defensive Spring Preview

The nucleus of Iowa State's defense returns to the field when spring football practice opens Wednesday afternoon, but coordinator John Skladany will now face the daunting task of replacing top players Jordan Carstens and JaMaine Billups, along with a cast of cornerbacks.

Personnel questions, however, aren't the only things on Skladany's mind. Like the sputtering offense, Skladany's unit took a big step backwards in 2003.

The defense surrendered 36.4 points per game and an average of 442 yards per game, with 216 of those coming by way of the ground. And while the offense fought through turnover-plagued performances, the defense failed to make big plays at crucial times against the Big 12's best.

So it should be pretty clear that this spring is more than just a run through for a defense trying to rebuild in some areas, and get some confidence back from a 2-10 campaign.

"Every season in every sport is a new season," said Skladany. "Obviously, you've got to address the past and see what your problems were. But with these players we've got to stay positive. Let's work on the corrections, get them in position and improving as much as we can. It's a new ballgame and we need to go in there with a good attitude.

"We had made some progress the last couple years in the run defense and then this year we didn't have a very good year, with injuries and missing tackles. We'll focus on those fundamentals and executing our scheme again with these guys."

In order to show the improvement Skladany desires, ISU will need to fill two voids at defensive tackle (Carstens) and strong safety (Billups).

After gaining valuable starting experience at defensive end as a true freshman, Brent Curvey will begin spring as Carstens' heir apparent. Defensive coaches made another position change in order to fill Billups' spot, moving Nik Moser to strong safety after an injury-plagued season at SAM linebacker. Another high profile change has long-time rush end Tyson Smith jockeying to WILL linebacker.

"We're going to try a couple of guys at different spots, notably Tyson Smith," Skladany said. "We're going to see if he can handle WILL linebacker. We need athleticism and speed to play in the Big 12, and Tyson certainly has some nice size. He's proved he's physical enough to stand in there on the defensive line and thrash around, and it looks like he has the movement to play inside backer.

"I think Curvey showed last year that he could play in the Big 12 Conference and be a productive player. He's got good girth to him, his feet move well and he's tough enough to be good one. (Moser) has played a lot of football. He was banged up through most of the year with shoulder problems, and hopefully those will be behind him and he can get back playing the way he's capable of."

Even with all of the pre-spring shufflings, Skladany takes comfort in knowing he'll have three of his top four defensive contributors back from '03 – Jason Berryman, Brandon Brown and Nick Leaders.

Berryman came out of nowhere to become the Cyclones' defensive MVP as a freshman rush end. A senior-to-be, Brown has been a steady middle linebacker since donning a uniform three seasons ago. Leaders, meanwhile, will need to step out of Carstens' shadow and become more of a force in the middle.

"We've got to see who the leaders are going to be," Skladany said. "We've lost a two-year captain in Jordan Carstens. He really gave us great stability during the games, and you could always count on him in practice, and just being around as an anchor. Who's the next couple of guys that are going to do it? Will it be Jason Berryman? What about Brandon Brown? Some of those leaders will show up as we play together more."

Skladany also must solve some depth inadequacies in the secondary, where six defensive backs are gone from last season's team, and replacements won't be on the way until this fall. ISU figures to have a solid starting four with Moser, Stevie Paris, Ellis Hobbs and Deandre Jackson. But who fills out the depth chart beyond the first-teamers is anyone's guess.

"We've got some more experiments going this spring on defense than we would in two-a-days," McCarney said. "We don't have the depth we're going to have this fall, with seven new scholarship guys coming in and three junior-college DBs. There is going to be some instant depth getting here, not just bodies but players. But Hobbs, Paris, Moser and Jackson have the best chance to be our starters (this spring)."

With so many questions left to be answered by the spring game April 17th, the biggest mission for Skladany's defense this spring may be developing some cohesiveness and gaining more experience.

"(Our depth) somewhat limits us, but that's OK," ISU's defensive coordinator said. "They have a new offense and I'm sure they're not going to throw the whole kitchen sink at us. Everybody wants to just get their feet on the ground. With the position changes, still some youth and inexperience at some spots, probably the less we do in the spring is fine. We want to learn our base defenses, some blitzes and compete as a unit. In a way that will not be a bad thing. That's OK."

SPECIAL TEAMS

Spring practice will be very important for the development of the Cyclones' special teams. Former All-Big 12 kicker Adam Benike has moved on, as has under-valued holder Casey Baldwin, a fixture for much of the past four seasons. ISU also must replace leading kick return man Lance Young, and starting snapper Eric Schmitz.

The good news is ISU has some candidates to step into those roles. Tony Yelk will get his best opportunity to become the starting punter, place-kicker and kickoff man. But Yelk will need to remain sharp, because he'll be getting a test on field goals from redshirt freshman Josh Griebahn, who still must prove he can remain healthy.

Todd Miller returns as the leading punt returner and may get more opportunities to handle kickoffs. Wide receiver Jon Davis is also a possibility to replace Davis as the team's top kick returner.

After the offseason firing of special teams coach Marty Fine, head coach Dan McCarney has turned to DeMontie Cross and Terry Allen as coordinators this season.


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