Nov 24, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Kansas State Wildcats running back Dalvin Warmack (3) is tackled by Iowa State Cyclones defensive lineman Ray Lima (76) at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Wildcats 42 to 38. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — They call Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock “the Professor” for good reason.
When it comes to improving and molding his unit, few better understand the ins and outs of getting that job done.
Case in point: Just one year into the job in 2017, the Cyclones became one of the best defenses in the Big 12, allowing just 366.2 yards of total offense a game — the first time in 10 years it had been anywhere close to that stingy.
Last season, the defense grew even stouter, holding foes to 349.2 yards per game and once again leading the league in scoring defense.
In short: Building an elite defense has allowed ISU to emerge as a team to be reckoned with — and now that it’s populated with top talent throughout each segment’s respective three-deep, another collective step forward seems imminent.
“Coach Heacock is a tremendous coach,” said Cyclones offensive coordinator Tom Manning, who returned to his post after a one-year stint coaching tight ends for the Indianapolis Colts. “Not only just a football coach. I think he’s a guy that a lot of us on our staff lean to for advice on a lot of different things. I think even going back to Toledo, he’s kind of been the rock for a lot of us — especially some of us younger coaches as we go through. Also X’s and O’s wise, I think he’s always, he’ll come in and give you little tidbits on, ‘Hey, that just because of this,’ and, ‘This guy, man, he was really impressive doing that.’ For me as a young guy, I really feel like he’s been a guy that has been a great mentor to all of our staff.”
What Heacock’s built makes ISU’s offense better. The defense has been the rock most games in the past two eight-win seasons. The offense is coming along, in part, because of what it faces in practice on a daily basis.
“I feel like we’ve got one of the best defenses in the country,” said speedy tailback Johnnie Lang, who’s one of five players vying for carries in 2019. “So going against (those) guys every day notably is making me better. It’s getting the receivers better. It’s getting the quarterbacks better. It’s getting the offensive line better. It’s getting the whole entire team better going against a defense like that. I appreciate Coach Heacock and that whole staff over there.”
The players, too.
ISU led the Big 12 in rushing defense in 2018 and racked up a program record 33 sacks. It’s a unit proven to disrupt all aspect of opposing offenses, so even partially solving the problems it poses from Monday through Thursday helps the offense find ways to excel on Saturdays.
“It’s definitely good for us — our defense being as good as (it is),” said versatile senior running back Sheldon Croney. “Coach Campbell uses iron sharpening iron, so we try to better each other and get better every day knowing that one day the defense might win, one day the offense might win. It’s just that competition bringing us closer together.”
It’s also helping the Cyclones separate from the league’s middle of the pack. ISU’s ranked in the Associated Press top 25 for the first time since 1978 and pegged by coaches to finish third in the conference.
Heacock’s installed the infrastructure that fuels that hype, even as his approach hinges more on old-school fundamentals than bells and whistles and advanced analytics.
“I think our guys have bought into the fact that we have to play great defense to be a championship team,” Heacock said.
That’s every day. Not just Saturdays. It’s embodied in players such as linebacker Marcel Spears, safety Greg Eisworth and defensive tackle Ray Lima. Especially Lima.
“He’s the entire reason the culture of this football program has turned,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said. “Who he is, what he is, what he stands for — you won’t know, because you can interview him and he won’t tell you, but I can tell you this: He’s the reason this football program and the future of this program had turned. He’s a guy that I think has made me a better person. I think he taught me the right way to lead. … Statistically it’s not going to jump off the screen and say, ‘Boy, Ray Lima is this, this or this.’ But on fourth and one. Third and one — in the most critical moments in the biggest games that we’ve played here, Ray Lima’s been outstanding.”
Croney can attest to that fact. When he tries to wriggle through ISU’s bulwark up front, Lima stands out — and holds on.
“Ray,” Croney said. “Ray’s tough. Once Ray gets his hands on you, it’s definitely tough to get away from him. It’s like, ‘Man, get Ray away from me.’ I mean, all our D-linemen are good, but when I see Ray, I’m just like, ‘Ah, man.’”
Stats don’t show that. Rankings don’t matter either. Lima and the ISU defense will take another elite step this season if and only if it adheres to internal expectations.
“The only expectations we’re looking forward to are our own,” Lima said on media day. “Everything that’s in the room is kind of what matters to us.”
Heacock established that part of the culture. It’s thrived because of its simplicity. And the sky’s the limit because of a shared sense of deep accountability.
“You look back to two years ago and at at this time of year, the defense is tremendously different,” Manning said. “There’s people everywhere I feel like sometimes and that’s a good thing. But it challenges us. I think it challenges us as coaches, to figure out what are the ways that maybe we can exploit those things in practice and it also challenges us to, ‘Hey, is what we’re doing the right thing?’ Because that’s what’s great about the way Coach Campbell structures practice: We’re always in competition. Our players are in competition on a day-to-day basis, but I think what’s unique about this coaching staff is we’re in competition from a day-to-day basis as far as situational football, but at the same time, I think we try to use that to help kind of bond us a little bit and work together. (Heacock’s) just been tremendous for our team, obviously for our defense, but I think also for us younger coaches — and don’t tell him I’m saying that he’s old, because he’s not old, but I think he’s just been a great guy. And all the guys on defense. They all have been in that and kind of developed this thing together and they’re all knowledgable guys that have had the ability to help us. It’s been really good.”