Iowa State is entering Year 3 under rising star head coach Matt Campbell, who agreed to a new six-year contract in late November. Optimism is as high as it’s been in Ames in more than a decade.
The Cyclones are coming off of their first bowl appearance since 2012, first bowl win since ‘09 and first season with at least eight wins since 2000. Last season included two incredibly special games in October, when Iowa State picked up two wins over top-five teams in Oklahoma (then-ranked No. 3) and TCU (No. 4). But like every team, some key pieces are gone and others will need to step up. Spring is the time when we start learning who that might be.
5 Storylines to Watch During Iowa State’s Spring Practice
1. Kyle Kempt’s team
Kept received an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA last month and that gives the Cyclones’ offense a huge leg up. Kempt came out of nowhere last season to replace Jacob Park and after doing so never relinquished the job. He led ISU to those big wins over OU and TCU. He’s not the strongest, doesn’t have the biggest arm or best wheels, but he’s got it between the ears, arguably the most important trait for a quarterback. Now, with Allen Lazard, Jake Campos and Trever Ryen gone, the leadership falls squarely on Kempt’s shoulders. How does he handle it? We will begin to get a glimpse into those skills during spring camp.
2. Replacing senior wide receivers
As mentioned above, Lazard and Ryen are both gone. Lazard was one of the top targets in the Big 12 and he finished his career in Ames averaging 72 receiving yards per game with 10 touchdowns. The next stop for him should be the NFL. Ryen was a good security blanket in the slot with 47 catches for 469 yards in 2017. Both were leaders on this team as well. Also no longer on the roster is Marchie Murdock, who had five touchdowns through the air. In total, Iowa State is 16 of its 27 touchdown catches from last season.
The Cyclones have a solid group ready to take on more of the production with Hakeem Butler, Deshaunte Jones and Matthew Eaton. Butler and Jones were just sophomores last season and could become one of the best wide receiver duos in the Big 12. Consistency will be the only concern. Spring will be their chance to prove they’re ready to take the next step.
3. Who replaces Joel Lanning?
In fairness, no one replaces Lanning. From his abilities (second in the Big 12 in tackles), to leadership and humility (switched from quarterback to linebacker), players like Lanning don’t come around very often. But it’s an important position for a team that was often carried by its defense last season. Along with Lanning, productive linebackers Evrett Edwards and Mackenro Alexander also are gone.
Willie Harvey finished fifth on the team in tackles in 2017 and has played in 35 games over his first three seasons in Ames. He’s the perfect player to step into that role as the leader of the unit. Tymar Sutton and Jake Hummel are two guys that played sparingly as freshmen last season and should see increased snaps and responsibilities this spring.
4. Offensive line shuffling
For the first time since 2015, Iowa State will return more than half its starters on the offensive line. But rock-solid starters Jake Campos and Robby Garcia must be replaced. Campos was a leader, great in the classroom, and was the ultimate team-first player. Replacing those two will tough, but there is still reason for optimism. Julian Good-Jones has started 24 straight games, while Josh Knipfel, Bryce Meeker and Sean Foster have starting experience of their own. Determining who still start at left guard and developing depth will be important this spring. An added wrinkle to this is the addition of new offensive line coach Jeff Myers, who at 25 is the youngest assistant coach in the Big 12.
5. Who can take the pressure off David Montgomery?
Montgomery continues to be one of the most explosive players in the Big 12, but he also seemed to get worn down at times last season. Nate Scheelhaase was hired as the new running backs coach this offseason and he’s in charge of finding Montgomery some help in the backfield. Mike Warren had lots of promise his first year in Ames, but he’s fallen out of favor since Matt Campbell took over as head coach. Sheldon Croney Jr. is the best bet right now to complement Montgomery, but also returning is Kene Nwangwu and Johnnie Lang, who played a bit last year as a freshman before being shut down with injuries.
— Written by Pete Mundo, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as well as owner and operator of HeartlandCollegeSports.com, a site for Big 12 fans. Mundo also is a college football analyst for Sports Illustrated’s SI Now and a sports anchor at CBS Sports Radio. He can be found on Twitter @PeteMundo. Follow Heartland College Sports on Twitter @Heartland_CS.