Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell has raised the profile of the Cyclones' football program since he arrived in Ames. Campbell and his coaching staff have developed the players he inherited, tweaked the offensive and defensive systems to put them in the best position to succeed, and recruited several high-impact performers along the way. As a result, Campbell has guided Iowa State out of the Big 12 doldrums and into the upper half of the conference standings.
Last season, the Clones rose as high as No. 18 in the AP poll and finished 8-5 following a loss in the Alamo Bowl. It was the first time Iowa State has won at least eight games in back-to-back years since Earl Bruce roamed the sidelines. Bruce also was the last head coach (actually, the only one to date) to put the Cyclones in the preseason AP Top 25 when his 1978 squad began No. 20 in the country. Dan McCarney was the last (and only the second ISU coach ever) to finish the season ranked when his 2000 Iowa State squad held on at No. 25 in the final poll.
After two straight winning seasons, and with an experienced roster returning, it’s likely the Cyclones will enter the 2019 college football season in the Top 25. And with Campbell at the helm, there’s a good chance Iowa State finishes there as well.
Nevertheless, despite the renewed optimism in Ames, the Clones have some work to do to catch up to Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12 hierarchy. And as Iowa State sets its sights on new horizons, here are some of the things you can expect to see unfold in Ames this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During Iowa State's Spring Practice
1. Stability at quarterback
One thing Matt Campbell has lacked at Iowa State is consistency at quarterback. Joel Lanning and Jacob Park split the QB duties in Campbell’s first season in 2016. Lanning moved to linebacker in 2017 — and blossomed — but Park left the team midway through the season. Kyle Kempt took over and led Iowa State to two incredible upsets, and then entered 2018 as the starter before he was sidelined by injury. Enter Brock Purdy.
Purdy entered his true freshman season third on the depth chart but supplanted Zeb Noland early in the year. He exploded onto the national scene with 318 passing yards, 84 rushing yards, and five total touchdowns in a 48-42 victory over Oklahoma State, and went on to win seven of his first eight starts. Overall, Purdy completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 2,250 yards and 16 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He added 308 yards and five scores on the ground, earning Honorable Mention All-Big 12 recognition while breaking several school freshman records.
The rising sophomore, who signed with Iowa State out of Arizona despite late offers from a host of blue-blood programs, isn’t just firmly entrenched at the top of the depth chart, he’s one of the best signal-callers in the Big 12. And, if he stays healthy and continues to develop, Purdy will likely break every Iowa State passing record over the next two to three years.
2. Next man up, Part I
The QB situation is finally settled, but the Cyclones must find a new primary ball carrier. David Montgomery opted to leave Ames for the NFL draft following consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. On paper, losing one of the best players in the Big 12 — and one of the most complete running backs in the country — is a big blow. But Campbell and his staff have done a good job developing depth, and though most of the top the candidates are unproven, the cupboard isn’t completely bare.
Kene Nwangwu was Montgomery’s top backup last season, and he finished third on the team with a modest 157 rushing yards. The rising junior has been an excellent kick returner for the Cyclones who has flashed explosiveness that should translate well to an increased role on offense. Senior Sheldon Croney Jr. should battle Nwangwu for the lead back role. Croney ran for 56 yards and scored once in 2018, but he was the second-leading rusher in 2017 when he gained 159 yards on the ground and averaged a team-best 5.13 yards per carry. Two talented true freshmen — Jirehl Brock (the highest rated player in the Clones’ 2019 recruiting class) and Breece Hall (No. 2 and an early enrollee) — should also compete for carries.
3. Next man up, Part II
Purdy must also break in a new favorite receiver, and replacing Hakeem Butler might prove more difficult. Butler ranked third in the Big 12 and No. 8 nationally with 1,318 receiving yards last season, and he led the conference and finished third in the nation at 21.97 yards per catch. The athletic 6-foot-5, 227-pound wideout needed just one 1,000-yard effort to prove himself ready for the next level. The big-play performer also recently boosted his draft stock with a superstar performance at the NFL Scouting Combine.
With Butler gone, Deshaunte Jones is the most experienced receiver on the roster, having started 17 games over his first three seasons. Jones ranked second on the team with 43 receptions and four TD catches last season, but because he managed just 8.51 yards per catch, he ranked third behind Tarique Milton in receiving yardage with 366. Milton, who caught 34 passes for 417 yards, scored just once. And like Jones, Milton is listed at 5-foot-10 — a full seven inches shorter than Butler.
Landen Akers showed some explosiveness by averaging better than 18 yards per catch, including a 55-yard pass completion from Purdy in the Oklahoma State game. Redshirt freshman Sean Shaw (6-6, 200) is built most like Butler and could take a step forward this spring. All-Big 12-caliber tight ends Charlie Kolar (6-6) and Chase Allen (6-7) should give Purdy two solid options in the red zone, but keep an eye out for true freshmen Darien Porter (6-4) and Ezeriah Anderson (6-5), who will join the team this fall. Either way, size should not be an issue for Iowa State at the tight end position.
4. Improvement from the offensive line
It might take time for the Cyclones to replace the production Montgomery and Butler provided last season, but having plenty of experience up front should help ease the transition. Iowa State is set to return all five starters up front, led by left tackle Julian Good-Jones, who has made 37 straight starts. Together, the unit has compiled 114 career starts, which is second in the Big 12 behind Texas Tech (115). Good-Jones, right guard Josh Knipfel (26 career starts) and right tackle Bryce Meeker (21) give the Cyclones the only trio of Big 12 offensive linemen with 20-plus career starts to their credit. Good-Jones, Knipfel, Meeker, and left tackle Collin Olson (11 starts), are all rising seniors and join sophomore center Colin Newell, who made 12 starts last season, in the starting lineup.
Of course, just because a unit is experienced doesn’t mean it will succeed. Though Iowa State produced a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in the same season for the first time in school history, the offensive line struggled at times to open running lanes. The Cyclones ranked 97th nationally in line yards (2.36) overall and 105th in standard down line yards (2.27), according to Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders. Iowa State also failed to protect the passer consistently. The Cyclones ranked 98th in stuff rate allowed (21 percent) and 80th in sack rate (6.7 percent), having surrendered 31 sacks overall in 394 opportunities. Overall, the unit ranked No. 90 with an 81.07 Offensive Line Performance Rating, according to CFB Winning Edge.
To keep Purdy healthy, and to create opportunities for newcomers to succeed in the running game and as receivers, Iowa State's offensive line must improve in 2019.
5. Best in the Big 12?
If you've gotten this far, you might think the Iowa State Cyclones don't even play defense (insert joke about Big 12 defenses here). But fortunately, defense is a major area of strength for the Clones. Iowa State led the Big 12 in rushing defense (115 ypg) and yards per carry (3.26) allowed in 2018. And, after finishing second in the Big 12 in total defense (349.2 ypg), and yards per play (5.05) allowed last season, Iowa State has a great chance to field the best overall unit in the conference in 2019.
It all starts up front, as Iowa State welcomes back arguably the best defensive line in the conference. End Jaquan Bailey was a second-team All-Big 12 selection by the league's coaches last season after he finished fourth in the conference with 8.0 sacks and sixth with 14.5 tackles for a loss. Ray Lima didn't light up the stat sheet quite like Bailey, but the 6-foot-3, 302-pound tackle earned second-team all-conference honors as well. Fellow seniors Jamahl Johnson and Matt Leo return with starting experience at nose guard and defensive end, respectively, and Enyi Uwazurike was highly productive as a rotation player who should take a step forward and will challenge for a starting job. The Cyclones are stacked at linebacker as well. Though Willie Harvey departs, Marcel Spears and Mike Rose are back. Safety Mike Eisworth — a first-team All-Big 12 selection and the reigning Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year — led the team and ranked ninth in the conference in total tackles (87), and Rose (75) — who was Honorable Mention all-conference and Freshman All-American recognition from several media outlets - wasn’t far behind.
If there's one question mark defensively for the Cyclones, it's at cornerback — where Iowa State must replace one of its best players in program history, Brian Peavy. Anthony Johnson played in all 12 games and worked his way into a starting job as a true freshman last season, and should start again at one corner. Datrone Young missed the final five games of the season with a shoulder injury, but started three games and is in line to compete for a starting job as well.