Prior to this winter’s early departures of David Montgomery and Hakeem Butler, Iowa State hadn’t had a player leave early for the NFL since Hall of Famer Troy Davis was drafted by the Saints in 1997.
So it’s somewhat natural to believe that the Cyclones, who are entering Year 4 of the Matt Campbell Era, might take a step back after posting back-to-back 8–5 seasons and finishing third in the Big 12 in 2018.
That really isn’t the feeling in Ames, though, which speaks volumes about how Campbell has not only recruited but also developed talent along the way.
In total, 11 Cyclones who received postseason All-Big 12 recognition are back. As Campbell’s program matures, expectations continue to rise — and don’t be surprised if this team remains in the Big 12 title chase deep into the season.
Previewing Iowa State's Offense for 2019
It all starts with quarterback Brock Purdy, who stepped in as a true freshman in 2018 and saved the season. After a 1–3 start, Iowa State switched to Purdy and went 7–2 the rest of the way. Purdy has the potential to be one of the best in the Big 12, but it is fair to question how much help he will have on offense.
The development of the offensive line is the biggest issue for the Cyclones this fall. The good news is that for the first time since 2014, all five offensive linemen return to the Cyclones in 2019.
“We are starting to see the health of our program exist because we have some guys with really good experience who showcased and took a big step forward on that offensive line a year ago,” Campbell says. “We also have some young guys that are right on their heels and were there by the middle of the late part of last fall.”
Replacing Montgomery, a two-time All-Big 12 running back, will be a chore. With only three fumbles in three seasons, Montgomery was always a reliable improviser during his career in Ames. Campbell and returning offensive coordinator Tom Manning will have plenty of options, though, as Kene Nwangwu, Sheldon Croney and Johnnie Lang are all guys who have played before. Freshmen Breece Hall and Jirehl Brock are talented backs who will push the veterans.
Filling the massive hole at receiver left by Butler could prove to be more difficult, mainly because his big-play ability was so elite. He averaged 22.0 yards per catch — the most by any player in the nation with more 35 catches — en route to a 1,318-yard, nine-TD season.
Two proven commodities, Tarique Milton and Deshaunte Jones, will see their roles increase at receiver, but look for the tight end position to continue to evolve at Iowa State. Charlie Kolar caught three touchdowns during his freshman season and could be the best pass-catching tight end in the Big 12 this year. He’s not alone, either, as Chase Allen and Dylan Soehner are very capable as well. This talented group of tight ends could go a long way toward replacing some of Butler’s lost production in the passing game. The Cyclones also added Arkansas graduate transfer La'Michael Pettway into the mix at receiver following spring practice. Pettway caught 37 passes in three years with the Razorbacks and brings good size (6-foot-2) to the offense.
Previewing Iowa State's Defense for 2019
Great defense is becoming a theme in Ames. Iowa State led the Big 12 in scoring defense (22.9 ppg) a season ago and ranked ninth nationally in yards per rush allowed (3.26).
The defensive line is this team’s top position group heading into 2019. Two all-conference performers in senior end JaQuan Bailey and senior tackle Ray Lima are back. Bailey has 18.5 sacks in his career, which is tied for the most in school history. He also ranks fifth in tackles for a loss with 31.5.
Those two won’t be alone. Jamahl Johnson is fresh off of a breakthrough junior season on the interior, while Enyi Uwazurike, Matt Leo and Zach Petersen have all shown promise on the outside. Iowa State lost Willie Harvey at linebacker but returns Marcel Spears Jr. and Mike Rose, who was one of the best freshman defensive players in the country last season.
The secondary does have some questions that need to be answered, specifically at cornerback. It’s difficult to put a true value on lockdown cornerback Brian Peavy over the last four seasons. Replacing him and running mate D’Andre Payne will be difficult, but Iowa State likes sophomores Datrone Young and Anthony Johnson, both of whom played a lot as freshmen. Strong safety Greg Eisworth was the 2018 Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year and should stand out again. Braxton Lewis, who started all 13 games last season at free safety, is back as well.
Previewing Iowa State's Specialists for 2019
Iowa State returns all of its specialists from last season, including walk-on placekicker Connor Assalley, who made 16-of-23 field goals. Punter Corey Dunn, who struggled at times as a sophomore, will look to improve in his junior season.
Replacing Montgomery and Butler will be no picnic, but Iowa State should be solid enough in important spots to avoid too much of a drop-off. Purdy puts the Cyclones in great shape at quarterback. The offensive line should take a step forward. Because of its strength up front, Iowa State’s defense will again be in the upper third in the Big 12. At the very least, expect the Cyclones to go bowling for the third season in a row, although the program’s goals are much more ambitious than that.