Spring practices are beginning to wind down across the Big 12 and teams are sending their squads into summer workouts. As they move forward, we’ll provide some thoughts and observations on things we’ve learned after the past few weeks.
Iowa State started practicing in March, but had to cancel last Saturday’s spring game due to impending weather conditions. Instead, they wrapped things up with the final practice of spring on Saturday.
The Cyclones had a historic season last year, winning eight games for the first time in years. Head coach Matt Campbell will be hoping to make strides again in his third year with Iowa State, especially in a conference where other teams are losing their biggest playmakers.
Are the Cyclones prepared to take those steps? Below are some thoughts on Iowa State football following the end of spring practices.
1. IOWA STATE MIGHT HAVE BEST QUARTERBACK DEPTH IN THE CONFERENCE
Where other teams across the league are breaking in new starters behind center, the Cyclones have two guys who can play the position.
At 23 years old, Kyle Kempt will probably be the oldest starting quarterback in the Big 12 in 2018. Part of the reason for that is the sixth year of eligibility that Kempt was granted from the NCAA.
Aside from his age, Kempt will also be one of the most seasoned signal callers after starting eight games last season. That experience will hopefully allow Kempt to play at a high level for a full season this go around, especially after he broke a record for completion percentage last year.
Redshirt sophomore Zeb Noland proved himself to be capable last year and he very well could be called upon next season. According to Noland, any quarterback battle between himself and Kempt is “irrelevant.” The redshirt sophomore has a bigger arm than Kempt and his in-game experience from last year means that he will be prepared if called upon.
The Cyclones also signed two recruits at quarterback in January. One of them, the athletic Re-al Mitchell, could see instant playing time next season in special packages. If that happens, it would be the second season in a row where Iowa State plays three different quarterbacks. Last year, that translated into victories over both Big 12 championship participants, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason to worry there.
2. MATT CAMPBELL COULD BE CALLING PLAYS NEXT SEASON
After offensive coordinator Tom Manning moved on to the Indianapolis Colts, Campbell decided to take the reins of play calling himself. Campbell has reportedly been happy with the situation as it played out this spring, indicating that he would continue on in the role as de facto offensive coordinator. “I’m doing a good job,” said the head coach, “so right now I’m not going to fire myself.”
Campbell wouldn’t be the first Big 12 head coach to take on offensive coordinator duties. Kliff Kingsbury has long been the primary play caller at Texas Tech, and Lincoln Riley did the same in his first season as the head man last year. Campbell was in charge of the offense at Toledo, so the role won’t really be anything new for him.
What kind of impact will this have on the field is yet to be determined, but after finishing eighth in the conference in scoring offense last season, the Cyclones could definitely improve on that side of the ball.
3. WHO WILL HELP DAVID MONTGOMERY MOVE THE CHAINS?
With Allen Lazard likely off to the NFL, who will step to compliment the playmaking ability of running back David Montgomery?
Kempt leaned on Lazard to come up with big catches all last season, but returning receiver Hakeem Butler could be ready for a big year. Deshaunte Jones could also be ready to step up after an offseason where he really committed himself to becoming a better wide receiver. Fellow wideout Matt Eaton says the Cyclones are “stacked” at the position.
Still, Lazard was a historic talent in Ames and it will be difficult to replace his playmaking ability. There’s not an obvious blue chip talent waiting in the wings, but Campbell has definitely shown that he and his staff know how to develop underrated players. Without a definitive answer, the question remains – who will help take the attention off David Montgomery when defenses begin to put all their focus on him?
4. REPLACING DEPARTED VETERANS COULD BE A CHALLENGE ON DEFENSE
There are several position on defense that still have not yet settled on starters. The biggest remaining question mark might be the middle linebacker spot that was manned last year by two-way player Joel Lanning. Right now, it seems to still be an open competition between four different players, although redshirt freshman O’Rien Vance has received some buzz.
The three safety positions in the secondary also still don’t have definitive starters, but Greg Eisworth seems to have the inside track. Eisworth came to the Cyclones these season from the JUCO ranks, meaning that he has some college experience that he can draw upon.
Still, the Iowa State’s coaches have seemed loathe to award different players the first spot on the depth chart during the spring. That’s not especially surprising, given that the Cyclones lost upperclassmen leaders on defense who may not necessarily be easy to replace.
It’s been a while since Iowa State made a bowl game in consecutive years, but Campbell showed last season that he can make history in Ames. The loss of so many veteran leaders on both sides of the ball has left some questions, though, and finding players to step into those roles might involve some growing pains.
Another major step forward seems unlikely, but there are still some upperclassmen on which the Cyclones can rely. Shoring up some of the defensive positions as well as getting more contributions from the offensive players on the roster will be projects that continue into the fall. With a more wide open the Big 12 in 2018, however, improvement in those areas could translate into progress in the win column.
With security at quarterback and running back, Iowa State should once again be tough competition for whoever they play. The specific outcomes of those contests is yet to be determined.
Iowa State opens their season at home against South Dakota State on September 1st.