Iowa State has never been synonymous with winning football, and the 2014 Cyclones could’ve easily been the poster child for “not a good football team”.
After a dismal season that included only one sloppy home win against Toledo, a loss to FCS North Dakota St. (granted who plays like a solid division 1 team), and a big goose egg for Big 12 wins— fans in Ames Iowa are growing distressed.
Despite the frustration, fans still crowded into the construction zone that is Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday for the spring scrimmage to see if they should get their hopes up for next season.
So, will Iowa State show some more promise next season, or will they again go bowl-less and hover around the bottom of the Big 12?
With this being a large question to tackle (pun very much intended), I’ll break down my analysis of the Cyclones on both sides of the ball, and from there, we’ll see if they’re ready to make the next step.
Overall Offensive grade: B-
Only one season after offensive coordinator Mark Mangino arrived in Ames, the Cyclones offense has started to show signs of life, and after the spring game it appears the growth will continue.
Quarterback grade: B-
In years past, Iowa State has been much like the Cleveland Browns when it comes to QBs. It has been a constant carousel and a constant question mark as to who the definitive starter is/should be. That is, until last season. Sam Richardson set himself apart putting up record numbers in the Mangino system that features a lot of quick screens, slants, and curls. Richardson even saw success running the ball (although some of those runs weren’t designed), as he was the second leading rusher on the team in 2014 with 421 yards. Richardson looked iffy in the spring game, going 11-23 with 145 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Richardson lacked touch on deep balls, overthrowing many of them. But, he did look okay with routine screens and slants. 2nd-string QB, Grant Rohach, who has made numerous appearances over the past two seasons, had a phenomenal day going 13-18 with 186 yards, a TD. Rohach did thrown one interception, but that came after the ball popped out of the receiver’s hands on a big hit. Iowa-native, Joel Lanning, also saw a decent amount of snaps and showed some impressive arm strength, but with that, lacked accuracy. Lanning went 11 for 27, with no touchdowns or picks. Lanning added 33 yards of rushing to his totals, and showed good awareness on when to tuck the ball and go. If ISU struggles or there are any injuries, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lanning get the nod over Rohach, despite Rohach’s impressive showing. Lanning, only a sophomore, appears to have a stronger skill set passing and running the ball.
Running back grade: C+
Coach Paul Rhoads has always emphasized running the football and being a “run-first” team. With that being the case, a look at the stats from last season would show much different. When you don’t have a back with over 700 yards on the season, or averaging more than 4.5 yards a carry, and your second leading rusher is your quarterback, you may have a problem running the ball. With the loss of leading rushers Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy, it’ll be interesting to see if Coach Rhoads can get his strategy going with one of the younger backs. During the spring game, not one back showed to be the star standout (as all four backs rushed within 15 yards of each other). The most impressive were freshman Clifford Kwaw-Mensah, who led the team with 50 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown, and potential number 2 or 3 back, sophomore, Mike Warren who put up 43 yards on 8 carries. Tyler Brown didn’t have a great day running the ball, but he had a decent game receiving— with a couple receptions, one that went for a 45-yard touchdown off of a screen. Granted, the team was missing their expected starter, Martinez Syria, who sat out with an injury, Iowa State will need to develop some kind of production out of the backfield if they want to put up points this season.
Wide Receiver/Tight End grade: A-
As I said before, since the arrival of Mangino, the offense has shown signs of life, and I’ve seen it especially in the receiving core. The Cyclones will return their top two receivers in D’Vario Montgomery and Allen Lazard, as well as senior Quenton Bundrage (who went down in the first game with an ACL tear). Bundrage didn’t just look good back from injury, he actually looked better — making a number of dazzling catches during the scrimmage. Despite losing their leader in receiving touchdowns, EJ Bibbs, I think Iowa State will be just fine in terms of production, as many of Bibbs’ touchdowns came across the middle in the red zone. Looking for a sleeper going into next year? Go no further than walk-on sophomore Trever Ryan. Ryan without a doubt hoisted the spring scrimmage game ball after racking up 146 yards on six receptions and a touchdown— two of Ryan’s six receptions came on passes of 40+ yards. With the departure of big-time playmaker, Jarvis West, look for Ryan to make some of these big plays throughout the season.
O-Line grade: C
As noted above, running the ball has been tough sledding for Iowa State in recent years, and the O-Line is in part to blame. Whether the reason be they’re undersized, they’re under-skilled, or they’ve got no depth, having a line is a must in football, nonetheless in a tough conference like the Big 12. The running game didn’t necessarily explode on Saturday, and giving up six sacks won’t make the QBs very happy, but the line still managed to look a little bit more promising than last year. The six sacks could be a tad skewed because of the spring scrimmage rule where the QBs are no contact, so any touch counted as a dead ball. I was actually more impressed with their ability to pass protect and to give the quarterbacks time to find open receivers. If the line can remain healthy, bulk up, and provide some running lanes, you’ll see this grade go up.
Overall Defensive Grade: B-
Someone must’ve told coordinator Wally Burnham that his seat is getting warmer, because I saw a completely new energy on the defensive side of the ball Saturday. Going into the spring scrimmage I expected to see the defense that allowed the third most yards in the nation last season. I expected to see a defensive front that gave up over 200 yards a game on the ground, and a secondary that simply couldn’t go a 3rd and long without giving up a big play or getting called for pass interference. This last weekend, though, was a very refreshing sight to see.
D-Line Grade: B+
The defensive line looked fantastic. The addition of the 2013 NJCAA Defensive Player of the Year, Demond Tucker, appears to be key in the improving Cyclones D. Tucker, a shorter 6-foot lineman, looked extremely quick and shifty on the line as he was able to get in the backfield a couple of times— where he picked up a tackle for a loss and a pass breakup. JUCO transfer, Dale Pierson, wreaked havoc at D-End where he (much like Tucker) found a home in the backfield where he picked up a sack, a tackle for a loss, and a pass break up. Tucker and Pierson aren’t the only ones who look like they’ll be effective on the line going into next season— senior defensive end, Trent Taylor, also looks ready, as he was able to be disruptive on pass-D with two pass break ups and hurry on the quarterback. As imposing as this line looked Saturday, I’d be very surprised if Iowa State experienced similar struggles on run-D like last year.
Linebacker Grade: C+
The linebackers were led by redshirt freshman, Willie Harvey, who had a hand in just about every play with seven tackles, two for a loss, and one sack. Harvey wasn’t the only underclassmen who had a solid spring showing at linebacker. Sophomore, Brian Mills, also was able to rack up one of the team high’s in tackles, with six. Unfortunately didn’t see last year’s starters, Levi Peters and Luke Knott, get much playing time Saturday. While the run-D looks to be improved on the D-Line, it’s tough to gauge where the linebackers are in this area.
Secondary Grade: B-
The secondary looked scary during this scrimmage— making big hits, playing with energy, and cleanly getting hands in on receivers trying to make catches. Defensive leader and potential All-Big 12 DB, Kamari Cotton-Moya, stood out as one of the big time playmakers coming away with an interception and two tackles. Also making noise in the secondary was senior, Darian Cotton, who also came away with an interception (which he returned for a touchdown), a pass break up, and 5 tackles. While most of the secondary played well, another player that really caught my eye was freshman Brian Peavy. Peavy stood toe-to-toe with top receiver Allen Lazard and actually contained him quite well. Peavy had six tackles on the day. Other returning starters, Sam E. Richardson and Nigel Tribune also looked impressive. This looked like the most improved position for Iowa State in my opinion, but until I see it translated into a real game, I cannot give them a higher grade.
Considering how early it is and the fact the offense and defense played their own team, it’s tough to truly know if these improvements will translate into the regular season. With that said, here are the best and worst case scenarios for the Cyclones going into the 2015 season:
Best case — I know come football season I could receive some crap for this, but Iowa State could honestly start the season 5-0/4-1. Naysayers, hear me out. Iowa State’s first half of the season features two non-conference teams they beat last year (Iowa and Toledo), FCS in-state rival, UNI (who they must be seeking revenge on after their loss in 2013), and two Big-12 bottom feeders in Kansas and Texas Tech. Despite the tough 2nd half of the season, coach Paul Rhoads is able to pick up another signature win or two(perhaps against a Texas or Kansas State team Iowa State lost to on game-winning drives last year), and Iowa State goes bowling for the first time since 2012.
Worst case— Naysayers, no need for the “I told you so’s”. Iowa State loses a third straight game to an FCS opponent (still don’t understand the benefit of scheduling these, nothing to win, a lot to lose), drops a second straight game at home to the Iowa Hawkeyes, and the struggles lead to another losing season. Or Iowa State has a similar season to last year, winning their non-conference, but going winless in the Big 12. The newly-renovated Jack Trice Stadium doesn’t fill the additional seats, and the only seat that gets warmer is Paul Rhoads’.
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