The Iowa State Cyclones have struggled in recent seasons, specifically with three consecutive years in which the team has lost at least nine games. However, there is a good deal of excitement surrounding the rebuilding program. New head coach Matt Campbell appears to be a solid hire, and there's talent and experience returning at the offensive skill positions, led by running back Mike Warren, quarterback Joel Lanning and wide receiver Allen Lazard.
Of course, there are many questions that must be answered as well, a process that will start when spring practice kicks off in Ames on March 8.
5 Storylines to Watch in Iowa State’s Spring Practice
1. A New Sheriff in Town
The Paul Rhoads era began with a winning record in 2009, and three bowl games in four years, but came to a close following three consecutive seasons in which the Cyclones lost nine or more games.
Campbell was hired following a four-year stint as the head coach at Toledo, where he posted a 35-15 record with the Rockets after being named interim head coach prior to the 2011 Military Bowl. Campbell led Toledo to three nine-win seasons and two appearances in the MAC Championship Game. Last year, Campbell's squad upset Arkansas early in the season and rose as high as No. 20 in the AP poll.
2. And Plenty of Other New Faces
Campbell brought six assistants with him from Toledo, and the staff got off to a very strong start on the recruiting trail. The Cyclones signed 29 players — a very impressive number for a brand-new coach with a limited time to recruit — including several early enrollees that will compete this spring for starting spots. The Cyclones return 14 starters from last year's roster, which is tied with Texas for second most in the Big 12, but the new coaching staff, as well as the influx of new talent, means the competition will be fierce on the practice field.
Among the new recruits already on campus are defensive backs Thadd Daniels, a safety that will immediately be in the mix to replace Qujuan Daniels, and D'Andre Payne, who originally signed with Tennessee as a 4-star cornerback recruit in 2014. Offensive lineman Karson Green, the only junior college offensive lineman that will go through spring practice at Iowa State, has a great opportunity to earn a spot in the starting lineup, same for tight end Cliff Fernandez.
3. Building Depth at Receiver
Looking ahead to the spring, the Cyclones are in pretty good shape at the wide receiver positions. Allen Lazard led the way last season with 56 receptions for 808 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore, and has the talent to be an All-Big 12 performer.
Experience and depth are a concern behind Lazard (especially since D'Vario Montgomery was dismissed from the program in February and Quenton Bundrage graduated) but there are plenty of intriguing options, such as speedy senior Dondre Daley, Jauan Wesley and new faces that will arrive in the fall such as dynamic playmaker Deshaunte Jones and highly recruited tight end Chase Allen.
4. Potential Playmakers in the Secondary
There may not be a better collection of talent on the roster than that at defensive back. Cornerback Nigel Tribune has made 26 career starts to date, which is tied for the most on the team at any position. Tribune recorded 37 tackles and broke up seven passes last season, and has intercepted four passes in his career. An all-conference candidate in earlier years, Tribune struggled as a junior and was overshadowed by Brian Peavy.
Peavy led the team with 82 tackles and intercepted two passes last season as a freshman while the rest of the Cyclones combined to produce just three picks. The five interceptions tied Kansas State for the fewest in the Big 12.
Kamari Cotton-Moya was Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year in 2014, but the safety was limited to just six games a year ago because of injury. A healthy Cotton-Moya would provide a boost both as a run-stopper and in coverage, plus make a few more big plays, which would help the Cyclones improve a defense that ranked No. 8 in the league last season (453.4 ypg allowed).
5. Rebuilding the Offensive Line
It's difficult to lead a quick turnaround for a head coach that also must rebuild along the line of scrimmage. The defensive line returns two starters, but depth is a concern. However, the offensive line must be completely rebuilt.
Only one starter returns from last year's unit - two-year starting tackle Jake Campos — who also happens to be the only lineman on the roster that has made more than one career start. Guard Nick Fett has the inside track to start in 2016 after becoming a regular contributor toward the end of last season and Sean Curtis and Jaypee Philbert have some experience as backups.
However, the Cyclones are likely to rely heavily up front on players like Bryce Meeker, who redshirted last season, as well as newcomers like Green. Those that will compete this spring will also be challenged by a new group in the fall that includes junior college center Oge Udeogu, and incoming freshman Sean Foster.
Iowa State Pre-Spring Outlook in the Big 12
Overall, the rebuilding process is likely to take a while at Iowa State, but the Cyclones appear to be moving in the right direction. Matt Campbell is one of the brightest up-and-coming head coaches in the industry, with a strong track record of success as a head coach and as an assistant at Toledo, as well as Bowling Green and Mount Union. And, some building blocks were already in place - most specifically Mike Warren, who was one of the top freshman running backs in the nation a year ago, and a talented secondary.
However, both the offensive and defensive lines are thin, and the Cyclones aren't nearly as talented as their conference counterparts like Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU. In fact, the only Big 12 programs Iowa State can match up with talent-wise are Kansas and Kansas State. While the newcomers Campbell and his staff were able to add to the mix will help, the Cyclones would likely need to overachieve in several key areas to end their three-year streak of losing seasons.
- Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can also read Allen on Saturday Down South, Saturday Blitz and FanSided. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.