When Matt Campbell was hired as coach at Iowa State following the 2015 season, he had a vision of what success would look like. Unquestionably, this is it. After an initial 3-9 season, the Cyclones have been to four straight bowl games, including the most recent Fiesta Bowl, where they beat Oregon for the school's first-ever victory in a New Year's Six contest.
And things look only rosier going into 2021. After tying the school record for wins in a single season and posting the program's best finish (ninth) in the final AP Poll in 2020, Iowa State will likely find itself firmly in the top 10 of the preseason polls. Buoying these expectations is the return of all of the offensive stars return as well as eight of the top 10 tacklers from last season.
The next chapter for the current Cyclone group has begun with the start of spring practice. Here are some things that will be interesting to follow during the Iowa State workouts.
5 Storylines to Watch During Iowa State's Spring Practices
1. Stretching the field
Iowa State is fortunate to have a quarterback as skilled as Brock Purdy. But each year his yards per attempt have dipped, from 10.2 as a freshman to 8.4 as a sophomore to 7.5 as a junior. It's doubtful that somehow he lost the ability to throw downfield, so developing some vertical threats out wide would be helpful. In truth, the receivers on the team are very good. Charlie Kolar is among the best tight ends in the land and Xavier Hutchinson hauled in 64 passes last year. But neither is a big-play threat the way Hakeem Butler was in 2018. The wild-card could be Tarique Milton, who averaged 20 yards per catch in '19, but had only 15 catches for 102 yards in 2020 due in large part to a pair of injuries.
2. Jirehl Brock
It is abundantly clear who the primary ball carrier will be. Breece Hall was a consensus All-American as a sophomore and will likely be included on many preseason Heisman Trophy lists for 2021. But his backup, Kene Nwangwu, declared for the draft, opening up a spot on the depth chart. It's now time for Brock, who was actually rated higher than Hall when both entered Iowa State in 2019. In his two seasons, the Quincy, Illinois, product has 94 total rushing yards. This spring, the Cyclone staff would like to see a back that's capable of much more.
3. Continuing the pressure on defense
The Cyclones finished in the top three in the Big 12 in sacks, tackles for a loss, fumbles forced, and fumbles recovered. It is amazing that Iowa State, a team that doesn't exactly recruit the highest-rated defensive players every year, is able to continually field such disruptive units. That shouldn't change this year, but they will be without an important piece. JaQuan Bailey is off to the next level and with him goes 13 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. Will McDonald is back and he will create havoc again, but this spring will be the time to find a piece to complement him up front.
4. Pass defense
At 237 yards allowed per game, which ranked 68th in the nation, Iowa State's pass defense wasn't awful. But compared to the suffocating run defense, it was the weaker link on this side of the ball. The Cyclones' other big defensive loss is safety Lawrence White, who has moved on to the next level. Kym-Mani King, who backed up White last season, and Villanova graduate transfer Jaquan Amos will battle it out this spring for the starting spot alongside All-Big 12 first-team selection Greg Eisworth.
5. Special teams
Iowa State allowed three return touchdowns in 2020, two on kickoffs and one on a punt. They were also eighth in the league in punt return yardage allowed and seventh in kick returns. A big part of the problem on kickoffs was that they allowed more returns than any other Big 12 team thanks to their 13.3 percent touchback rate. The Cyclones also booted it out of bounds on kickoffs three times. Finding someone that can kick it higher and farther would be a big help.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.