AMES — It’s a bit ironic that Matt Campbell’s football reputation began by building good offensive lines, but that’s the area that has progressed the slowest as he enters his fourth year as Iowa State’s coach.
“I do know there’s no shortcut to building an offensive line,” Campbell said at his team’s Media Day on Thursday. “If you look at our first offensive lines, Year 1 and Year 2, we were trying to bridge it together, piece it together.”
Iowa State lost two impact players to the NFL last spring in running back David Montgomery and receiver Hakeem Butler. The program may make up for that in something less flashy, which is consistency and perhaps more from its offensive line.
“At Iowa State it’s not snap your fingers and have a great offensive line,” Campbell said. “Offensive line play is a learned skill. It’s a craft. You’ve got to work in the weight room, work at how you eat, work at how you play. It’s got to be five guys communicating as one to be successful.”
What separated Iowa State from Iowa in the Cyclones’ 13-3 loss in Iowa City last year more than anything was the offensive line play. ISU’s O-line was stymied in what was its season-opener, and immediately moved pieces around after that game. The Cyclones went on to average 30.9 points over their final nine games.
Now, for the first time entering a season in Campbell’s four years here, the offensive line is viewed as an asset.
“We’re finally to the point where there are some guys who have played together,” Campbell said. “There is veteran-ness, cohesiveness.”
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Not only are four senior starters on the O-line, but they and sophomore center Colin Newell have a combined 107 starts. That’s as experienced a unit as you’ll ever have starting a season.
The tackles are Cedar Rapids’ Julian Good-Jones (Washington) and Bryce Meeker (Prairie). They have a combined 58 starts, and feel they have turned corners.
“In years past we’ve kind of been a liability,” Good-Jones said. “We think we can give back to this team and this offense and show that guys can lean on us a little bit.”
“I think we’re in the best position we’ve ever been in as an offensive line,” Meeker said.
“As an offensive lineman in your early years, I think you just kind of learn your position. As you grow I think you learn the whole offense, you learn where the ball’s going to hit, you learn where the quarterback’s going to be. I think once you understand that you can take your game to another level.”
Good-Jones and Meeker went into the starting lineups as novices. They have evolved into vital cogs.
“Both of those guys are fun to go against in practice,” said Cyclone senior defensive end JaQuan Bailey. “I’m happy both are pushing me to limits I haven’t been. I’m hoping to push them to limits they haven’t been for the betterment of the team. I know both of those guys are willing and able to do so.”
It has taken time. To paraphrase Campbell, good offensive linemen are made, not born.
“The biggest thing I saw when Bryce was young was a little laziness,” Good-Jones said. “You know, a redshirt-year type of thing. Now he’s completely going all-out every time.”
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Asked if he had similar “laziness” four years ago as a redshirt freshman, Good-Jones said, “I think so. When you’re young you don’t really know what it means to go hard. You kind of figure that out along the way.”
Meeker said Good-Jones is “just a completely different person than when he walked through the doors here the first day. He’s grown mentally, physically, emotionally, everything.”
Bailey said similar things about the other three starting offensive linemen, Newell and senior guards Collin Olson and Josh Knipfel.
“This offensive line plays as one,” Bailey said. “This is the closest I have ever seen them. It’s amazing to see guys finally come together and be one.”
At 24th, Iowa State is in the preseason coaches poll, something that has never before happened. For the ranking to be proven to have merit, the blockers have to be better than ordinary.
“If you look in the past,” said Campbell, looking back as his days as an offensive line coach at Bowling Green, then a line coach and offensive coordinator and head coach at Toledo, “we’ve been outstanding in terms of our offensive line play and what it’s looked like.
“Have we been that way here? Not yet. But it’s one of those areas where we’re a lot closer to where we want to be.”
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