NOTEBOOK: Reflecting on JaQuan Bailey’s path from somersault snafu to All-American status

Dec 5, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell hugs defensive end JaQuan Bailey (3) before their football game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday. Mandatory Credit: Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports

JaQuan Bailey is a first team All-American.

The Football Writers’ Association of American bestowed that honor on Iowa State’s uber-talented fifth-year senior defensive end today — and that achievement caused me to reflect on his career as the countdown to Saturday’s 3 p.m. Fiesta Bowl matchup with Oregon continues.

 I thought of Bailey’s penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct in a 17-7 loss to Texas in 2017, all for simply expressing joy in the form of a sideline somersault after a sack.

 I thought of an interview I conducted with him for a feature on former Cyclone star corner Brian Peavy, in which Bailey noted this: 

 “That’s a great, great dude,” Bailey said. “Peavy is a true leader. Peavy does it, I would say in multiple ways — on the field, off the field, classroom and the community.”

 I remembered that the Jacksonville native and all-time ISU sacks leader liked to swim his way to tranquility, leisurely gliding through laps to take his mind off stress and worries.

 “It’s peaceful,” Bailey said in 2018. “I kind of like, I would say, get away.”

 I recalled what Cyclone head coach Matt Campbell said of him exactly two years ago in advance of a then-landmark berth in the Alamo Bowl.

 “JaQuan didn’t have to grow up as a football player,” Campbell said at the time. “JaQuan had to grow up as (to) what’s it mean to be a great teammate? What’s it mean to take my great football ability and play within the concept of 11 as one? I think he’s grown as much as anybody in our program with that.”

 Simply put, Bailey is the benchmark for how to adapt and thrive in Campbell’s culture-based program.

 He’s got a lot of Peavy in him. A lot of Ray Lima, too. Most of all, he’s a testament to the trust Campbell seeks to cultivate in all his players.

Trust in the process. Trust in your teammates. Trust in yourself.

 “Honestly, me and Campbell have had some tough, tough times,” said Bailey, whose 25.5 career sacks are ranked eighth all-time among Big 12 players. “I’ve always put all of my trust in him, and then he has, like, never steered me in the wrong direction. So it’s like, basically, he has never, ever lied to me or never have done wrong by me. So I’ve really never ever had to ever question him or anything like that. So we have always just built over just time. So that’s just my guy, man.”

 Bailey’s Will McDonald’s guy. The senior has helped guide the junior’s development at the defensive end position — and McDonald broke Bailey’s single-season school record for sacks with 9.5 this fall.

“It’s just like ever since he came in (in) 2018, it’s just a growth as a young man,” Bailey said of McDonald. “Will just aggravating me every day just trying to get better, just trying to learn just the ins and outs of pass-rushing of, like, reading the different protections, about reading just a different formation. Will just calling me at (midnight) and 1:00 in the morning. He’s out watching film and studying different tackles and different formations. Honestly, to see all that come all together this year… Will playing on the other side of me is honestly — he has just been a true, true blessing.”

 Having Bailey and his twin brother Josh at Iowa State has been a blessing for Campbell. For all of us, really. From somersaults to swim strokes, he’s vaulted to the top of the record books. And now, he’s a first-team All-American — as a player and as a person.

“For me, the I take a lot of pride in where JaQuan Bailey is right now — just his growth from where he was as a freshman to who he is today,” Campbell said earlier this season. “And I’ll be honest with you: I think I took as much pride or take as much pride as what I’ve watched him grow from a young man into a man in our program and a leader in our program, as I do the fact that he’s the sack leader and all those great things. Those are all great cherries on top of becoming the best version of yourself, but I think my greatest pride in JaQuan is way greater than sacks on a football field. It’s how he carries himself outside of football. It’s the leader he is inside of our locker room. It’s how he treats the young players in our program. Those are things that, in my opinion, are the epitome of greatness and he has certainly grown into some of those qualities and I’m really proud.”

 Bailey will make his 49th career start on Saturday when the No. 10 Cyclones (8-3) take on the 25th-ranked Ducks (4-2). He’s started each game this season after an injury cut what should have been his senior season short in 2019. He’s excited, primed and prepared to let it all hang out — no somersault required.

“We just as a team want to just finish strong,” Bailey said. “We know that Oregon is a great, great team, so I wouldn’t want to play anybody else. … (I’m) looking forward to the challenge.”


 Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s faced two of the nation’s top-10 scoring offenses this season (Oklahoma and Texas) — and won both times in the regular season.

 Oregon, he said, can pose similar problems. The Ducks average 33.7 points per game and feature an array of playmakers such as Devon Williams, Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson. 

“Those guys are tremendous players,” Heacock said. “That whole receiving corps, very impressive on video. That’s what we’ve gotten to study, you know, whether it be this year, games that we’ve seen, those kinds of things. I think the skill level there is very equivalent to what we see in our conference. It’s a big challenge for us. I think our guys are very aware of those folks and the abilities that they have. We’ll continue to do the things that we try to do every week, and I think our guys, again, have worked to do that. But it presents a huge problem. And, again, as you watch the defenses that they’ve played against in their conference, it’s presented a lot of problems for them, and we’re going to have to be on our game on Saturday.”


 ISU star linebacker Mike Rose was asked Wednesday about being honored as the Big 12 defensive player of the year. His response?

“Yeah, it meant a lot, for sure,” said Rose, who has started a team-best 37 straight games. “It’s a coaches’ vote, so that’s obviously pretty flattering, but at the end of the day, it’s a team sport. So you try to get team awards, and then the individual awards will come with it. So yeah, it was definitely really cool, but definitely not what I was striving for this season.”


 “We’ve always talked about really laying a foundation here, and just keep adding players to that foundation. And something that coach Campbell has talked about recently has been the process of growing a bamboo tree and how you water the roots faithfully every day for however many years. And then eventually, within a couple of weeks, it will just sprout out of the ground, almost seems like out of nowhere. That’s kind of the life we’ve lived. We feel like we’ve been faithfully watering the foundation, growing those roots. I really feel like this year, we’ve sprouted through the ground and (there’s) still a lot more to overcome.” — ISU first-team All-Big 12 safety Greg Eisworth II

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