Photo courtesy of Iowa State athletics communications.
DALLAS — Indeed, Will McDonald is the “physical freak” that he has been made out to be. Just ask Iowa State’s soon-to-be all-time sacks leader, senior defensive end JaQuan Bailey.
“Will is one of the most gifted, elite athletes that I have ever watched,” Bailey said. “That’s a lot because I am from Florida. I see freaks all of the time. It’s just crazy. I would see him work out and then he would just go run off and do a backflip or something crazy. Watching him do drills, just the way that he bends and runs is just not natural. It’s all God-given ability.”
However heading into a 2019 season where the Cyclones have been picked to finish third in the Big 12, Iowa State’s defense will rely on McDonald, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound freshman, to be more than a guy who looks good with his shirt off. Matt Campbell has a vision that McDonald will be the piece that makes his defense even better compared to last season’s unit, which finished 27th nationally giving up 4.9 yards per play.
McDonald saw quality reps as a true freshman, playing in four games at defensive end for the Cyclones before sitting out the rest to allow him to redshirt. He recorded the first sack of his career at TCU.
It was in January when Campbell and the defensive staff began to tinker, as they tend to do every offseason.
“It was watching this guy with elite athleticism and wondering where does he fit?” Campbell told Cyclone Fanatic on Tuesday at the Big 12’s media day. “What’s coming back? How can we continue to evolve defensively? One of the things that I looked at with our defense was, what are some of the areas that we can get better at? How and where does this guy’s skillset allow us to get better? I thought it was a perfect match.”
Of course, dreaming about this “perfect match” and the position switch actually working are two different things. After having a spring season and all summer to evaluate, the Cyclones’ defensive staff was confident enough in McDonald to name him as the starter at SAM linebacker entering fall camp, which begins in less than two weeks.
Why make the change?
Iowa State believes that McDonald’s size and athleticism will give the Cyclones a pass rush option from that position that hasn’t been around in the past. Willie Harvey, the man McDonald is aiming to replace, was a very solid linebacker who excelled in coverage but lacked a natural pass rush ability. Harvey’s size (30 pounds lighter and four inches shorter than McDonald) limited his ability to take on a 300-pound lineman on his way to the quarterback.
McDonald, a Wisconsin native who was the first prospect to commit to Iowa State’s 2018 recruiting class, had his hand on the ground all last season on the field and on the scout team. Going toe-to-toe with a behemoth lineman is second nature to a guy who has played defensive end his entire career.
“The nice thing is that you can be a lot more multiple with a guy like Will there,” Campbell said. “He gives you the ability to do some things that maybe you haven’t had the ability to do in the past.”
Iowa State’s track record in moving natural athletes to linebacker is solid. Linebackers coach Tyson Veidt took Joel Lanning — who played quarterback for four years — and turned him into an All-Big 12 linebacker in one offseason.
“I also give a lot of credit to Mike Rose and Marcel Spears,” Campbell said. “They have spent endless amounts of hours preparing Will to do some of the things that we ask that SAM linebacker to do.”
The ultimate goal…
“Can you set the edge of a defense? Can you hold the edge of a defense? He has tremendous athletic ability and has already shown us some ‘wow’ plays,” Campbell said. “Can he consistently do it? Game in and game out and day in and day out?”
Even if McDonald isn’t Von Miller on day one, Iowa State has legitimate depth at the position. Junior Jake Hummel, who is listed as Spears’ backup at weakside linebacker, has played a lot of football.
“I think Jake is ready to step into a way bigger role than what he has done,” Campbell said.
He’s also high on another redshirt freshman, Chandler Pulvermacher, who currently sits at No. 2, behind McDonald, on the depth chart.
“He has shown flashes of excellence,” Campbell said. “There is competition. Nobody is handing anybody any starting job today.”