AMES — When football returns, in whatever capacity, Iowa State coach Matt Campbell can sleep well knowing his defense should be able to anchor the team.
The Cyclones return nine of 11 starters on defense. All-conference defensive end JaQuan Bailey will be back from a leg injury and all-conference safety Greg Eisworth — who did play the whole season — returns from a shoulder injury that nagged him throughout the conference portion of the schedule.
It’s the offensive line that’s the biggest question Campbell has to answer. All but one member of last year’s starting five — sophomore Trevor Downing — completed their eligibility. It could’ve been two, but junior Colin Newell was injured in the first game of the season.
Campbell said those two starting is a given, but the other three spots are up for grabs.
“For the first time since I’ve been here, we’re returning two guys that we’ve been able to develop since the beginning within our program,” Campbell said. “Trevor Downing and Colin Newell are two guys that, quite honestly, have probably been the highest rated offensive linemen in our program in terms of consistency of production from game-to-game. Those are two key leaders for us.”
While the Cyclones won’t have the experience they did last year along the offensive line, Campbell hopes an upgrade in talent will help offset that lack of in-game experience.
“We get to really look at the rest of the guys like (redshirt freshman) Grant Trieber, (redshirt freshman) Jake Remsburg, (junior) Rob Hudson and (junior) Derek Schwieger,” Campbell said. “We have a group of nine or 10 fighting for three spots.”
While losing four starters isn’t ideal, Campbell takes comfort in the fact that the line is surrounded by veterans who can help them out and help them develop.
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Brock Purdy was a captain as a sophomore last season and should be one of the top quarterbacks in the Big 12. He can help put the line in a position to succeed by assisting with pre-snap reads and pass protection.
Running back Breece Hall is just a sophomore but he’s proven to be an all-conference back. Senior Kene Nwangwu and junior Johnnie Lang have also started at running back and can help the young line know what the running backs are seeing and expecting, while also boosting pass protection.
In the offseason, Iowa State added Mick McCall as its running backs coach. McCall was the offensive coordinator at Northwestern for 12 years prior to becoming Iowa State’s running backs coach.
“We have so many talented running backs who can do so many things,” Campbell said. “They’ve all started games, they’ve all been the primary back and obviously with the emergence of what Breece became, that was huge for our success a year ago. Now we’re adding a coach like Mick McCall who’s been an offensive coordinator for the last 15 years in Division 1 football.
“Talk about doing more with less, he helped lead Northwestern to a Big Ten championship game and had elite success in his 12 years there.”
Lastly, Iowa State has three all-conference tight ends, who can be used as extensions of the offensive line.
“We had the first team, second team and honorable mention tight ends on our team,” Campbell said. “The credit goes to the kids but the other credit goes to (offensive coordinator) Tom Manning. Almost 48 percent of the snaps we had last year as an offense were with two or more tight ends on the field.”
That 48 percent could go up even more in 2020 as the coaching staff gets the offensive line broken in and used to playing at a college level.
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“Coach Manning’s ability to go to the Indianapolis (Colts) and gain some great knowledge of how to use tight ends — he coached two Pro Bowl tight ends while he was there — was huge,” Campbell said. “To be able to bring back bits of that offense and have some baseline adjustments that we can make to what we do, it really helped us last year.
“We need to keep finding them unique ways, tactically, to give them an advantage.”
So while the offensive line is relatively young and mostly inexperienced, with no player having more than 16 games of experience, it should be in a position to succeed given the talent, experience and leadership surrounding it.
“We’re veteran at quarterback in Brock Purdy, veteran at running back and veteran at tight end,” Campbell said. “They can all really help usher in what I feel is the most talented offensive line that we’ve had.
“We’re really confident with what that group looks like.”
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