AMES — No. 24 Iowa State is headed into its most anticipated season in recent history — maybe in program history.
The Cyclones open it by hosting Northern Iowa at 11 a.m. Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium.
The Cyclones are ranked in both the preseason coaches (24) and AP (21) polls for the first time. They are picked to finish third in the Big 12 and respected college football writers like Brett McMurphy have Iowa State playing in the Big 12 Championship game and going to the Cotton Bowl. ESPN College GameDay personality Desmond Howard even picked Iowa State to win the Big 12.
So where is all this hype coming from?
Iowa State’s offense lost its leading receiver and leading running back with no obvious heir apparents. And the defense lost its second-leading tackler and one of the best cover cornerbacks in the Big 12.
The hype is coming because Coach Matt Campbell’s team finally looks how he wants it to look.
“You’re talking about replacing two of the best players in Iowa State history — David (Montgomery) and obviously with Hakeem (Butler),” Campbell said. “We’d love to be multiple. We’d love to have the ability to attack in different ways. And certainly, we didn’t do that the last couple years because we rode our best players. Now, with some of those better players, or veteran players being at quarterback and the offensive line, it certainly allows you to be a little bit more multiple in our attack and how we do things.
“Being able to build the offense through the offensive line and quarterback is where you would love to be as a program. We’re finally at that point. That’s our foundation.”
Left tackle Julian Good-Jones has noticed the difference.
“We can do anything Coach Campbell or (offensive coordinator Tom) Manning asks us to do,” Good-Jones said. “We’re not one dimensional.”
Receiver Deshaunte Jones has felt a difference with the offense, as well. The last three seasons Iowa State has had a receiver with more than 100 receptions. In all likelihood, that won’t be the case this season. The ball has been getting spread around a lot more in practice.
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“Fortunately, or unfortunately for us, some of our best playmakers have been guys that we’ve said, ‘Man, we’ve been in some of these situations. We’re just force-feeding these guys the football,’” Campbell said. “You look across our board right now, I do think there’s some depth at those skill spots. There are guys that we feel really comfortable with that can make plays and I think the quarterback is starting to feel that way, too.”
Iowa State’s defense doesn’t need quite as much, if any, tweaking compared to the offense.
The defense is at the point where it reloads, not rebuilds because it is able to develop from within. And it’s something Campbell hopes the offense is developing, too. And if it does, it’ll be thanks to his leaders.
“I think the biggest thing that I would say is this is maybe one of the more mature football teams that (we’ve had),” Campbell said. “You talk about our leadership, you look at our captains. These are guys that have played a lot of football here.”
Those captains are two-time captain and redshirt senior Ray Lima, redshirt senior linebacker Marcel Spears, redshirt senior offensive lineman Josh Knipfel, redshirt junior safety Greg Eisworth and sophomore quarterback Brock Purdy.
“Those leaders, those captains, not only are they your best players, but if you were a coach and said, ‘I’ve got to pick out these characteristic traits of how these leaders would act inside and outside of the program,’ they’re exactly what you would pick,” Campbell said. “I think when you have that, it has the ability to raise everybody’s intent and level of training to what you hope everybody should train and prepare like. It allows young players to mature a lot faster because they’ve got someone that’s showing them how to do it.”
When coaches show a player technique or how to do something, players listen, but they don’t always absorb it fully because the coaches aren’t players anymore — they aren’t peers.
“I think sometimes there’s always a point, there’s a line in the sand, where they kind of say, ‘Well. I’m listening to you, but ...’” Campbell said. “But, man, when it’s your teammate that says how it’s done, ‘This is the expectation and I’ve got proof of my success,’ then I think guys are willing to listen faster and grow a lot faster.
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“We have that now and I do think that’s certainly a huge benefit for this year’s team.”