The Cyclones had the 124th rated rushing defense, 81st rated passing defense, finished 119th on standard downs, and 66th on passing downs. The last stat was "achieved," if you can even say that about ranking 66th nationally, due to their Cover 5 defense and their 3-4 package both of which brought an ultra-conservative approach to defending the pass.
The major problem with the Cyclones was strictly personnel, meaning they lacked talent. Their two starting safeties, Kamari Cotton-Moya (FS) and TJ Mutcherson (SS) finished 1st and 2nd on the team in tackles with 77 and 76 respectively. The LB corps, which has normally paced the unit, was riddled with injuries all season with main starters Jevohn Miller, Luke Knott, and Jared Brackens serving as the main cogs but only combining for 14 tackles for loss and one sack between them.
Their defensive line also struggled to impact games and DE Cory Morrissey was the only one consistently making plays in opposing backfields.
The Cyclones simply lacked veteran talent in 2014, especially up the middle at DT, LB, and S.
Paul Rhoads' recruiting strategy is largely dependent on snatching up 2/3 star players from California, Florida, or Texas that he can slip past the major programs. Many people talk about how college football recruiting is all about learning to tap these three states but this is totally ridiculous for a program like Iowa State.
Particularly the attempt to target Florida and California, which every other program in the country is also mining. The Cyclones play regularly in Texas which helps their recruiting there, but how is Iowa State going to end up with any of the good athletes from Cali or Florida?
By taking risky players that other programs don't want to take a chance on. This hurt Iowa St last offseason when they lost a pair of truly athletic defensive tackles in Rodney Coe (Illinois) and David Irving (California) to offseason troubles. They also had a large number of JUCO transfers in 2014 that were expected to fill big roles on the team such as DL Terry Ayeni, Dalyou Pierson and Gabe Luna, LB Jordan Harris, and S Devron Moore none of whom played particularly well in 2014 and some of whom had to redshirt.
They tried to play their usual bend don't break strategies in 2014 but their tattered LB corps and young safeties provided a brittle interior that tended to break pretty easily when bent and the DL could not inflict enough negative plays on opponents to make up for it. The team finished with 15 sacks on the year, 10 in conference play, which was the lowest total in the conference (West Virginia was 9th with 12 sacks).
The Cyclones played mostly brands of Cover 4, like much of the conference, but they mix in a good deal more Cover 5 than many other teams, which is two-deep safeties with match-up zone underneath. They'd also play some Cover 3, often when bringing pressure with their zone blitz package which only yielded 1.5 sacks from their defensive backfield.
Iowa State would be at their best in 2015 if they can get their "bend don't break" defense working properly relying on the following schemes and players:
The plan to stop running teams
When the Cyclones want to stuff opposing run games they have a pretty straightforward method for doing so, to drop the free (boundary) safety into the box, play the boundary corner over the top of the outside receiver, and simply outnumber the run.
It's difficult for a running team to get much traction against this look as the free safety and sam "hy-backer" (the Iowa State term for their nickel/lb hybrid player) are close to the action and can easily fill cutback lanes or force the ball inside to the six man box.
The boundary corner and strong safety have arguably the toughest jobs here in regards to coverage and the strong safety often lines up very deep but has to be able to make a play on the slot receiver if the offense throws a screen pass on an inside zone/bubble screen RPO (run/pass option) play.
TJ Mutcherson (Florida) had the range to do this and would likely have become a star before he graduated but he got kicked out of the program. JUCO transfer and senior Qujuan Floyd will now fill that role and he also has some credible range and ability to break down and make tackles in the open field.
Nigel Tribune has been the boundary corner for the last few years and he wasn't quite the lockdown guy that they were surely hoping he'd be in 2014. However, he did have three INTs and 13 pass break-ups and is only just now entering his junior season. There's a chance Tribune is one of the better corners in the Big 12 in 2015.
The free safety and sam linebacker need to be strong run defenders in the box and on the edge respectively. These assignments require some lateral range to make tackles as well as fast recognition and some explosive power to blast through the wash and bring people down.
Jarnor Jones is likely the man at sam and he's a guy that's been playing nickel and boundary safety at Georgia Military Academy. He's 6'2" or so and fluid so he may bring better coverage ability and perhaps he can even use his length play a press alignment over the slot rather than apexed between the slot and the OL. He's another of those good athletes that Rhoads took a flyer on in the hopes that he'd stay out of trouble while in Ames.
Kamari Cotton-Moya returns to man the free safety spot after leading the team in tackles as a RS Freshman there last season. KCM was definitely solid last year and is listed as being three pounds heavier now at 6'1" 197 rather than 194, which is fairly minor but could be a good sign as one area where he needs to grow is landing bigger hits and driving back ball carriers. He should be more experienced in recognition now that he's had a full season and offseason as the expected starter whereas he was rushed into the role before 2014.
The plan to stop passing teams
Here's where the Cyclones are a little more unique and perhaps even ahead of the curve in the Big 12. In passing situations or even against spread to run teams with dangerous passing games, the Cyclones spent a good deal of time lined up in Cover 5.
This could look a little different based on whether they are facing a 2x2 formation or a 3x1 set.
The safeties line up deep and play over the top of everything while the underneath defenders play match-up zone to eliminate easy short and intermediate throws. They tend to allow crossers underneath and ask the linebackers to break on those routes.
The major key is how they account for the loss of an extra run-defender they suffer from dropping both safeties deep. They overcome this loss by two-gapping the weakside end inside to cancel out the B-gaps.
The result of the two-gapping technique is that their linebackers are better covered up to run to the football without getting put in crippling run/pass conflicts.
Occasionally they will also play a 3-4 package and use the middle linebacker to spy the QB or to be a 4th pass-rusher while matching up all of the receivers underneath with a nickel package:
The safeties both need to be useful for breaking on deep passes and cleaning up anything that gets through with reliable tackling because the nature of the two-deep structure makes it easier for the offense to find creases in the middle of the field with the running game.
The defensive ends are a major part of this scheme for two major reasons. First of all, this defense is designed to take away the QBs primary reads by bracketing all the short routes with zone and playing over the top with the safeties, which yields positive results IF the defensive ends can take advantage and rack up coverage sacks.
However, the strongside end also has to do some two-gapping to make sure the front isn't porous against the run so he's generally not going to be adding as much pass-rush.
Trent Taylor returns to man the left end position in 2015 and he could be pretty solid after coming on towards the end of 2014. At 6'2" 257 he has some size and power to grapple with right tackles against the run. The right end spot will probably be occupied by Dale Pierson who was half-decent as a pass-rusher last year. The Cyclones' ace in the hole is actually incoming JUCO nose-tackle Demond Tucker, who's only 6'0" 287 but was the JUCO DPOY last year with 13 sacks.
A glance at his HUDL reveals an explosive player that might have been asked to cut weight and play linebacker in a different era. With one of the ends two-gapping, that will ironically require that the DTs pick up the slack in rushing the QB and the hope is that Tucker can handle that role.
The middle and weakside linebackers also have a heavy burden in this defense to cover ground from sideline to sideline, either cutting off the routes of inside-breaking receivers or flying back to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. After a year of settling into the new scheme with a redshirt, Rhoads is really hoping that Jordan Harris can be a leading tackler at middle linebacker. The Cyclones haven't been particularly good here since Jeremiah George left, although Jevohn Miller was solid for a few games before getting injured, and the prospect of sending Kane Seeley back out there is surely terrifying to this coaching staff as they fight for their jobs.
Luke Knott has been a solid weakside linebacker for these guys but a hip injury took him out in the spring and has really left his whole career in question. Into that vacuum stepped this person:
Prognosis for 2015
If Iowa State suffers a rash of injuries again in 2015, or they have to kick out what talent they still have for various off the field infractions, they're going to be terrible again. But they have a chance to be solid with these schemes if certain players pan out.
In summation: Jordan Harris has to own the interior as the middle linebacker, Demond Tucker needs to bring some pass-rush to the DL, Floyd and Cotton-Moya need to be flying to the football from their deep alignments, and Tribune needs to make a leap and become a lockdown corner.
If all of that happens? This could actually be a very good unit. If not? Paul Rhoads may be building a different defense as a DC in 2016.