Coach Matt Campbell’s initial season at Iowa State was a mostly down affair as Iowa State dropped 9 games including an opening loss to FCS opponent Northern Iowa. However, as the season progressed, so did the Cyclones. Iowa State picked up wins against Kansas and Texas Tech and played respectably in a 2-2 stretch to end the season.
Young talent emerged in the form of quarterback Jacob Park, running back David Montgomery, and receiver DeShaunte Jones. Veteran All-Conference performer, Allen Lazard, turned in his best season yet, and decided to return for his senior campaign.
The Cyclones are widely viewed as a team on the rise in the lower tier of the conference. Will the momentum from the end of last season continue? For authoritative and informed answers and insight we turn to the managing editor of Wide Right and Natty Lite, Kevin Fitzpatrick.
It appears that ISU will live or die with Jacob Park at QB and Joel Lanning at linebacker. How do you think Jacob Park stacks up with past ISU quarterbacks and in the Big 12 QB hierarchy?
It’s always tough with Iowa State QBs because many of them have been lauded as “the next great,” only to fizzle out as quickly as they broke onto the scene. That’s been happening for the Cyclones ever since Austen Arnaud graduated.
The thing that’s different about Jacob Park is he was highly-rated out of high school and makes it look effortless on the field. We’ve seen him make the types of throws that past ISU quarterbacks have struggled to do… Ranging from simple screen passes on the numbers to over-the-shoulder throws where only the receiver can catch the ball on the sideline. He has a swagger in the pocket that was either never there or dissipated with the QBs of the Paul Rhoads era. You can count me as a believer in Park and I think his ceiling, from an Iowa State standpoint, is in the same discussion with greats like Seneca Wallace and Sage Rosenfels.
As far as where he stands on the Big 12 QB hierarchy, for now I’d probably slate him behind Mason Rudolph, Baker Mayfield, Will Grier, and Shane Buechele for sure. I think after that, it’s up for debate. Is Park at #5? Maybe not, but again, I think his ceiling is high and he can certainly work his way into the upper tier of conference quarterbacks with a good 2017 season.
Iowa State struggled out of the gate last year with losses to an FCS opponent and a disappointing effort against Iowa. Do you expect a fast start this year?
I can’t imagine Matt Campbell will allow the Cyclones to lose to UNI in back-to-back seasons. By sheer willpower fueled by Advocare Spark, he will start this season off 1-0. The Iowa game is an interesting one because they lost some key players (notably quarterback C.J. Beathard and cornerback Desmond King) and it’ll be a hostile road rivalry game for their guys who lack experience. I’d expect that game to be much more competitive than last year’s embarrassment, especially if the ISU offensive line plays well since they were a huge part for the poor result in 2016.
I’ll still probably predict a 1-1 start with a loss to Iowa, but I’ll be disappointed if Iowa State doesn’t head into the conference schedule with at least a 2-1 record. Akron on the road isn’t a gimme, but it’s also a game the Cyclones need to win if they want to have a shot at getting back to a bowl.
Iowa State brings back only one starter on the offensive line from last year. What do you expect from the offensive line this year?
Even though they only bring back one starter, that’s a bit misleading because they’re also gaining back Jake Campos, who was out all of 2016 with a leg injury. He’ll likely be one of the tackles with prize redshirt freshman Sean Foster serving as the other. Now that the guys on the roster have had more than a year to get used to Tom Manning’s style up front, I expect them to gel much quicker and perform better than last year’s group.
It’s always tough to judge spring game performances, but when I was watching the 1st team OL against the 1st team DL, I thought the OL clearly outplayed their counterparts. Whether that speaks more about the offensive or defensive line is the question, but I’ll be optimistic here and predict that they’ll at least be average by Big 12 standards.
ISU has historically struggled defensively. Do you expect improvement this year? Who are the difference makers? Elephant in the room — Joel Lanning at Middle Linebacker?
The big determining factor for how the defense will do this year is how much the new defensive line additions can make an impact. Guys like Matt Leo and Ray Lima need to step in and be difference makers, otherwise we’ll likely see the same defense that was adequate against the pass but struggled against the run last season. Getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks is huge in the Big 12 simply because of the tendency for so many teams to attack through the air. If you give a Mayfield or a Rudolph time to sit in the pocket, they’re going to pick apart the defense no matter how talented the players in the secondary are.
Joel Lanning at linebacker is a huge question mark. We know he has the size and speed to play the position, but will he be able to get the reads and systems down to become a true difference maker? Fortunately (or unfortunately…) Iowa State’s linebackers haven’t been good at all ever since Jake Knott, AJ Klein, and Jeremiah George left town, so the addition of Lanning figures to be an upgrade. He’ll be one of the guys to watch in the first couple games of the year to see if he can perform well without having first-hand knowledge of the offense he’s competing against.
There were some notable narrow losses in Big 12 play last year. Can the Cyclones turn those opportunities in to wins?
I think so. To turn around a program, you have to first be competitive. Iowa State showed they could be competitive last year. The next step in the process is to win those close games. I think the talent level has taken a significant jump under Coach Campbell already and he’s certainly doing his best to change the culture, so more wins should come – hopefully sooner rather than later.
Outside of Park and Lazard, who should we expect to see as a difference maker?
I’m really high on running back David Montgomery. He was pushing Mike Warren early-on last year and eventually took over the starting job in the second half of the season. It sounds like he’s one of those guys who’s always working to be better and his running style, as others on our staff have pointed out, is quite similar to Cyclone great Troy Davis in that it’s a mix of quickness and bruising. With an adequate offensive line, he could be in line for a big season.
Speaking of Warren though, after struggling last year, Coach Campbell has sung his praises this off-season and he could be in for a return to his freshman season form. If that happens and Montgomery avoids a sophomore slump, Iowa State could have the best running back tandem in the conference.
What are fan expectations for this season? Bowl game?
I think 5-6 wins would satisfy many fans; the Cyclones should be contending for bowl eligibility. I’d love for them to get to a bowl game, especially for a guy like Allen Lazard who hasn’t had that experience in his career. Four or fewer Ws would be seen as a disappointment. The grind of the Big 12’s round robin schedule is real, especially for a lower-tier team like ISU, but as mentioned previously, if a few more plays had gone Iowa State’s way last year, they very well could have had six wins.
I’ll go on record saying that I think it’s going to be a 5-7 season in year two for Matt Campbell, with year three being the return to the postseason.