Life's tough when you're a nose guard.
It's the most thankless position on defense. Stats are hard to come by. Cut blocks aren't. Each new series brings with it hand-checking and head-butting, holds and helmet scuffs. It's all about taking on blockers and clogging gaps, letting teammates roam free. Defensive ends get to swim-move and spin their way to sacks. Nose guards just bear-crawl.
Life's tougher when you're a nose guard without a capable defensive tackle with you in the trenches.
"When the [defensive tackle] is getting his butt-whooped, the nose guard has to overcompensate," Cyclones starting nose Devlyn Cousin said Wednesday night, having just celebrated a rare victory against Iowa State's offensive line.
Next to even a very good three-technique defensive tackle — like Rodney Coe — a nose guard will routinely take on double teams, often tasked with holding up a guard and a center, keeping them from moving downfield into the linebackers or down the line into the three-tech, the more explosive and decorated of the two interior d-linemen.
Coe has been dismissed. David Irving is out with an injury all spring. Pierre Aka has been dealing with a concussion (he recently returned). One, two, three. This spring, Cyclones have been trotting out DT Nos. 4 and 5, redshirt freshmen Robby Garcia and Vernell Trent.
"We've got who we've got," position coach Shane Burnham said. "There's no free agency. So we've got to get better."
Back to Wednesday night, for one snap. Cousin didn't get the usual double-team. Instead, because it's really just a warm body next to him in the trenches, Cousin found himself with three o-linemen — Tom Farniok, Daniel Burton, Oni Omoile — swarming him, literally on his back. This is the norm these days, "almost every play," he said.
And Cousin won.
"I just picked one of them and bull-rushed and the others jumped on my back and tried to take me for a ride," the sophomore said with a laugh.
"If you're getting off blocks, you're winning. You're always gonna get double-teamed. Like Burnham always tells me, you always choose one person and you beat that person. You beat him, you're good."
It's just one moment, but it's a positive sign for Burnham; Cousin's all he's got at the position. The 2013 starter Brandon Jensen decided to hang 'em up, as did backup Austin Krick, and the Cyclones struck out on their JUCO DT targets in the offseason. Sure, Cousin might have entered the 2014 season as the starter had Jensen stuck around, but the point is ISU's rotation at the position is razor-thin.
Jensen served his four years in the program and earned his degree. Life without football became more desirable than life with. The attrition didn't stop there for the Cyclones. Coe, the NFL prospect, couldn't string together enough days of showing up on time to meetings and obligations — a problem the former JUCO transfer has dealt with since he got to Ames, per sources — and it cost him.
Mind you, these are losses from a defense that ranked last in the Big 12 in rushing, scoring, yards yielded and total sacks.
It gets worse on that side of the ball.
Devron Moore enrolled in school in January, the free safety job essentially his, and left about a week ago. Coach Paul Rhoads thinks Moore might return from Missouri, where the junior's dealing with what Rhoads calls a bout of "homesickness." Calls to Moore go straight to voicemail. His Twitter has been deleted. Former JUCO coaches have been unable to reach him.
So there's Cousin, playing with a makeshift bunch of teammates on defense, going up against an improved offensive line, an angry line.
"I love it," Cousin said. "I like the physicality, I like the double teams. Basically it challenges me."
A few months ago, Cousin was Vernell Trent or Robby Garcia, forced into action for no great reason.
"We played him more than we anticipated, for lack of production ahead of him, to gain some experience," Burnham said.
Over seven games, Cousin notched six tackles, 1.5 for loss, with a high of two against West Virginia. But as we touched on earlier, stats don't tell half the story for a nose guard. Did he burst off the line, hold his own, create space for his teammates? Or did he stand straight up, do a lackadaisical dance with a blocker, let his guys get swallowed up?
In absence of hours of Cousin-specific tape review, one note proves useful: He played in the last six games of the season, suggesting his job was good enough.
"It helped me a lot because playing against Okey State and Oklahoma, those cats are pretty good," Cousin said. "It got me ready to play this spring."
A ton of room stands for improvement. At 6-foot-1, 300 pounds, Cousin's a bit taller than the typical, squatty nose and struggles to stay low.
"Dev, sometimes is like a jack in the box," Burnham said. "You play that music — daduh, daduh, dadudadaduh- — and he goes straight up off the ground. At times he comes off and moves his feet. It's just consistency. But — he's probably ahead and more confident because he's played."
"You've got to get off the ball, you've got to be physical," Cousin said. "It's a grown-man position. It's pretty tough [playing] down in the trenches."
Someone's gotta do it.