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AMES — When a football analyst, prognosticator or even a fan looks at Iowa State’s roster, the first thing they point to is the amount of returning starters the Cyclones have.
Iowa State lost just three starters and five or six, depending on how you look at it, impact players.
The sheer number of proven returning players is the reason ESPN’s Football Power Index has Iowa State ranked No. 4 in the nation for next season.
While that’s all fine and dandy, getting almost the exact same football team back next season actually makes defensive coordinator Jon Heacock a little hesitant.
“My concern is that the same team is coming back and that means we’re going to be just the same,” Heacock said.
Being the same team Iowa State was last year would mean another historic year for the Cyclones and another New Year’s Six Bowl.
Nothing to scoff at, but Heacock wants more.
“I don’t think you’d coach or play if you didn’t think you had a chance (to be the best),” Heacock said. “That’s all I know and it’s all I’ve ever coached to do — work to be the best.”
Through the spring practices, Heacock’s concerns were alleviated. The guys who came back weren’t going to be just the same guys.
They were working to get better.
“Sure we have all these veteran guys coming back but if we’re the same team, we’re in trouble. But if we’re able to improve, that’s what you’re looking for as a coach,” Heacock said. “The reality for us is that our older guys have shown tremendous intent and purpose in practice, and as long as they’re improving, we’ll be a better team.”
Heacock recognizes the historic improvements not only his defense has made but the entire team.
The Cyclones are recognized as one of, if not the, best defensive teams in the Big 12 and Coach Matt Campbell has been able to guide Iowa State to better bowl games, after better bowl games.
Heacock doesn’t see any reason for the Fiesta Bowl to be the capstone.
“I hope we’re not done (improving),” Heacock said. “It takes a lot of hard work and commitment. (Being the best) is what we set out to do here. I don’t think we’ve reached a point where it’s all good. When I go back and watch the videotape, it’s not all good.
“Our players came back because they weren’t all good. Have we made some accomplishments and have our guys accomplished a lot of goals? Sure they have, and it’s been awesome. But I don’t think anybody in this building is satisfied.”
Heacock cited losses to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, Louisiana and Oklahoma State game as reasons why no one was satisfied with the best season in Iowa State history.
“I wouldn’t do what I’m doing if I didn’t think we could go be the best,” Heacock said. “I don’t look at it like, ‘We have to go win the championship.’ But there’s no special place that’s determined by logos where that has to happen.”
The College Football Playoff has become a place dominated by logos. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Notre Dame are regulars, leaving the likes of TCU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and others on the outside looking in at one time or another.
If ESPN’s FPI somehow ends up predicting the future for Iowa State and the Cyclones are a top-four team, Heacock won’t be surprised. It’s what he, the rest of the staff and the players have been working for.
“I’ve been coaching defense my whole life and the goal has always been to be the best defense in the country. Period,” Heacock said. “Didn’t matter where I was, what logo I had or anything else. That was the goal and that was the purpose.”
Heacock has worn a lot of logos, from prestigious ones like Michigan to FCS logos like Youngstown State.
Now he’s at Iowa State. A place that less than a decade ago was the doormat of the Big 12 along with Kansas. The “I-State” logo wasn’t in a good place.
Luckily, that didn’t matter to Heacock.
“I’ve never put limits on logos,” Heacock said. “I couldn’t wake up every day if I was thinking I didn’t have a chance. I’m the wrong guy for that.
“Man, there’s still so much out there for us to do. I’m blessed that my fellow coaches feel that way and that our players feel that way. I certainly hope that we’re not done doing what we came here to do.”