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Iowa State seeks to recapture consistency on both sides of the ball as spring practices begin
Reboot of sorts on offense was sorely needed
AMES — Anthony Johnson. Will McDonald. O’Rien Vance.
Three of Iowa State’s most important football leaders last season just happened to helm each level of the Cyclones’ defense.
Johnson starred at safety after playing cornerback for three years. McDonald continued to be one of the country’s best edge rushers. Vance remained a rock-steady performer at linebacker.
Now all three are chasing NFL dreams of varying degrees of likelihood — but their fingerprints still are all over an ISU defense that has consistently ranked at or near the top of the Big 12 since head coach Matt Campbell took over the program in 2016.
“I think that’s the key to success in our program,” Campbell said. “When the veterans are humble enough and unselfish enough to bring everyone else with them. That’s when we play great, not just on defense, but really across the board. And I think that’s something that makes you feel confident about what we’ve got coming back.”
Just three teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision — Air Force, Iowa and Illinois — allowed fewer yards per game than the Cyclones did in 2022. But ISU’s offense struggled mightily to score, ranking 113th out of 131 FBS programs in points per game at 20.2.
The Cyclones also ranked last among Power Five schools in red zone scoring conversions (70.45 percent), so a reboot of sorts on that side of the ball was sorely needed after the program’s first losing season in six years.
That starts, of course, at quarterback, where Hunter Dekkers completed 66.1 percent of his passes, but failed to find consistency. He notched 19 touchdown passes while tossing 14 interceptions and will be pushed this spring by freshman J.J. Kohl and redshirt freshman Rocco Becht.
“I think in general, whether it’s Hunter or across the board, I think consistency in what’s being asked of them is really important,” Campbell said. “I think that’s really been the demand since we’ve come back. You saw a team last year, at times, that was high and low, and lacked consistency in some moments, and I think when you’re young that is part of the growing process.
“I think we’ll be our best team across the board when we have great consistency and obviously the guy who’s handling the ball the most, consistency has to start with the quarterback position.”
The good news for ISU: Dekkers and most of the team’s key contributors in 2022 are healthy this spring. The not-so-good news: Several others, including top running backs Jirehl Brock and Cartevious Norton, are dealing with the lingering effects of injuries and will be limited in terms of on-the-field activity for most if not all of the spring’s 15 practices.
“A guy like Eli Sanders will have a great opportunity and (had) a great finish to (last season),” Campbell said. “Certainly a guy like (Stanford transfer) A.J. Harris, it’s great that he comes in and gets the opportunity to get great reps.
“We have a very firm confidence in what Jirehl can do and (he) needs the reps in practice, but we know what type of player he is, and we feel very confident with Cartevious.”
That’s the general feeling Campbell has for all of his 2023 Cyclones, as well, but like last season, uncertainty cloaks opportunity until the lights come on and the games are played. And ISU made significant staff changes — from offensive coordinator to strength and conditioning staff — in the offseason in hopes of ensuring that last season’s 4-8 mark is an aberration, not the start of a trend.
So consider spring not just a renewal, but a reaffirmation of all the standards that undergird Campbell’s program.
“There’s been a lot of great things that have occurred here,” said Campbell, who led the program to its first five-year stretch of winning seasons from 2017-2021. “There’s also been opportunities where maybe you feel like you could have been better than what the result of what occurred looked like.
“That’s why I’ve always said I’m not after this or this. We’re trying to be the best version of us every year and that’s not just lip service. That’s really what I’m after.”