The Matt Campbell era officially enters its second season in Ames with an emphasis on players and coaches alike knowing what to expect, both from opponents and themselves. A philosophy which shouldn't be hard to abide, given how much the 2017 version of the Iowa State Cyclones will look like the ‘16 edition. Youth and inexperience will once again be factors in how well the Cyclones fare on the gridiron.
There is one major difference, however, in the eyes of Campbell entering spring drills – coaches and players alike are once again excited about Iowa State football. And not just about the prospects to improve the numbers in the win column. They're also excited as coaches about the continuity already demonstrating itself in the little things, like weight training. Beyond those little things, they're excited about the opportunities for growth their focus on fundamentals will bring about for these young and hungry Cyclones in what will undoubtedly, as always, be a very competitive Big 12 conference.
One look up and down the roster and it's not difficult to conclude that there will be a fair amount of familiarity returning on both sides of the ball when the team gathers for fall camp in August. So the questions to ask have very little to do with who will be playing, and everything to do with how well they'll play. But before we worry about the fall, let’s take a look at what to keep an eye on this spring.
Podcast: The 2017 Big 12 Primer
5 Storylines to Watch During Iowa State’s Spring Practice
1. Can you identify even one offensive lineman?
With just two returning starters on the offensive line for the second consecutive year, there's no question this is ground zero for the Cyclones’ coaching staff in their battle for continuity. From that standpoint the unit will be in good hands with offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Tom Manning, a 2016 Broyles Award Semifinalist for the nation's top assistant coach. He'll have his hands full working with several new starters, but certainly no worse than what he inherited there in 2016. Watch for Manning's focus to be on a trio of redshirt freshmen – Sean Foster, Josh Mueller and Oge Udeogu – as he seeks to fill those holes.
2. Isn't it really just a one-horse race at quarterback?
As head coach Matt Campbell and his staff continue to focus on continuity it seems only logical they'd enter 2017 with the same two guys at quarterback as they ended last season. And they will, but the job descriptions have changed. After starting the final five games of last season, Jacob Spark enters spring atop the depth chart. Joel Lanning, a rising senior, will still see some snaps at quarterback, especially around the goal line, but the coaching staff also is planning on using him at both running back and wide receiver on offense and may give him a look at linebacker on defense as well. The idea is take advantage of his athleticism and versatility as much as possible. For Park, the hope is that the end of last season has prepared him to take command early and help this offense take the next step forward.
3. How to handle the defensive youth?
While you couldn't necessarily count the number of career starts from the returning defensive linemen on both hands, you could probably take off a shoe and get there. That's not to say there won't be talent in the defensive trenches for these Cyclones. Keep an eye on the two anchors at end – JD Waggoner and JaQuan Bailey. Waggoner was on his way to his best season in 2016 before being sidelined with a season-ending shoulder injury vs. Baylor. And Bailey was named an Honorable Mention Freshman All-American by Campus Insiders. The back end is in good hands with All-Big 12 defensive backs Kamari Cotton-Moya (second team in 2016) and Brian Peavy (honorable mention) leading the way. These four will not only be the keys to the defense’s development, they'll also be called on to mentor the younger players. But the biggest challenge for defensive coaches will not be finding players eager to contribute, so much as sorting out the options.
4. Is there too much talent at wide receiver?
No one “in the know” would likely dispute the assertion that this is the one position on the roster where it is more about keeping everyone happy, given just how much talent returns. Allen Lazard, who finished fifth in the Big 12 with 1,018 receiving yards last season, will be the focus, but he shouldn’t be the only one making an impact in the passing game. Deshaunte Jones led all Big 12 freshmen in receiving with 536 yards and also caught six touchdown passes. His development will go a long way toward ensuring the continuity factor Campbell has made the No. 1 priority. How he and Lazard mesh with Park could factor heavily into how productive Iowa State’s offense is this season.
5. How bright does Campbell see the Cyclones’ future?
In his first year in Ames, the focus for Campbell was putting his stamp on the program and installing a new culture, while putting his players in the best position for success. And while a 3-9 record doesn’t look that impressive, it doesn’t account for all the work behind the scenes that Campbell and his staff put in to lay the groundwork for the future. Now that everyone has had a full year to become familiar with one another and to experience the new culture, this spring is all about building on the progress that was made last year and seeing which players are eager to take advantage of the opportunities put before them. No one is expecting Iowa State to contend for the Big 12 title this fall, but you can bet that Campbell has made it clear that 3-9 in Ames doesn’t cut it anymore.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Iowa State in the Big 12
Iowa State enters its second spring under head coach Matt Campbell feeling good about the direction the program and players are headed. With a renewed focus on continuity and the fundamentals at the core of their efforts it's still a rebuilding job with a long way to go. But they'll be doing it with players that will most likely be around for a few more years. While the offensive line, where at least three redshirt freshmen are expected to get long looks, will be a focus, the coaching staff can feel good about the talent the Cyclones have at wide receiver, starting with Allen Lazard, and quarterback – the one-two punch of Jacob Park and Joel Lanning.
On defense, coaches will be breaking in several junior college transfers while leaning heavily on All-Big 12 defensive backs Kamari Cotton-Moya and Brian Peavy. The adjustment to a new coaching staff and attitude are really just beginning so 2017 could end up looking a lot like ’16 as far as wins and losses go. But Campbell and his staff knew going in this would be a multi-year effort and show no signs of buyer’s remorse about their decision to come to Ames.
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, an independent writer and member of the Athlon Contributor Network since July 2015. Boleyn is a native Iowan, currently based in Southern California, and attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.