Iowa State Cyclones

5 questions for Iowa State football entering the 2019 season

Can the Cyclones meet expectations?

Iowa State defensive end JaQuan Bailey reacts to a safety against Texas Tech at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Ames. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)
Iowa State defensive end JaQuan Bailey reacts to a safety against Texas Tech at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Ames. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)
/

AMES — With Iowa State football media day here, let's take a look at five questions for the Cyclones entering the 2019 season.

1. Can the defense build on its success?

In a conference filled with high-powered offenses, Iowa State Coach Matt Campbell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock have built one of the premier defenses in the nation.

The Cyclones’ front seven is as good as any.

It might be hard to believe, given where the front seven was when Campbell arrived. But that’s not hyperbole — the statistics tell the story.

Iowa State returns every player from last season’s front seven except linebacker Willie Harvey. And last season, Iowa State was No. 8 in the nation in rushing yards allowed per attempt with 3.35 and No. 9 in the nation in rushing touchdowns allowed per attempt with 0.77.

They also excelled in rushing the passer, recording 33 sacks on the season, third best in the Big 12.

Three players from the front seven — Ray Lima, JaQuan Bailey and Marcel Spears — found themselves on the preseason All-Big 12 team. Middle linebacker Mike Rose was a first-team freshman All American last season by the Football Writers Association of America, The Athletic and 247Sports.

Rounding out the front seven (which is actually a front six in Heacock’s system) are redshirt freshman linebacker Will McDonald, who the staff is very high on, and defensive end Enyi Uwazurike, who was putting up good numbers until a groin injury sidelined him for four games.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

McDonald, who was a defensive end last season, played in four games, recording three tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. Campbell and Heacock believe he could be a difference maker in Iowa State’s pass rush. His role will be similar to that of Von Miller’s in the Denver Broncos’ system.

Uwazurike has all the physical tools at 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds to be an All-Big 12 performer at the end of the year, he just needs to stay consistent and stay on the field. Last season, in nine games, he recorded 27 tackles and five tackles for loss.

Iowa State’s secondary is led by 2018 Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the year Greg Eisworth. Eisworth was everywhere for Iowa State, leading the team in tackles with 87. He also had four tackles for loss, a sack, five pass breakups, one interception and two forced fumbles.

Eisworth will be joined by veteran safeties Lawrence White and Braxton Lewis. The cornerback positions will be manned by sophomore Anthony Johnson and redshirt sophomore Datrone Young, who both saw significant time last season.

Defenses give up yards in the Big 12. That’s a given. What matters in the Big 12 is what happens when your back is against the wall in the red zone, and Iowa State has proven it can handle the pressure.

The Cyclones had the 16th best red-zone defense in the nation last season, allowing scores on just 76 percent of trips inside the 20. Iowa State allowed just nine rushing touchdowns in the red zone, which was eighth best in the nation.

Iowa State’s defense has already proven its ability, but how much better can the Cyclones be in 2019 and what has to happen for them to cement themselves as the Big 12’s defensive juggernaut?

 

2. Will Purdy and Rose keep producing?

Quarterback Brock Purdy and linebacker Mike Rose both burst onto the scene last season as true freshmen for the Cyclones.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Rose was a freshman All-American and Purdy was the Big 12’s freshman of the year, according to ESPN.

Rose started every game last season and recorded 75 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, five QB hurries, two breakups and one fumble recovery for a touchdown.

Rose put on 25-30 pounds in the offseason to help him handle the physicality of Division I football (he played at 212 last season).

In nine games as the primary quarterback, Purdy passed for 2,250 yards and 16 touchdowns on 220 attempts. He also rushed for 308 yards and five touchdowns.

Purdy is already the bona fide starter, but by now, Iowa State fans know the stat: No Iowa State quarterback has started every game in a season since Austen Arnaud did it in 2008. It’s been over a decade. It’s time for Purdy to go wire-to-wire.

 

3. Will continuity help the offensive line?

Campbell calls them erasers, essentially, they’re players who are so good that they mask (erase) deficiencies of a team.

Former running back David Montgomery was the offensive line’s eraser.

Montgomery averaged 4.7 yards per carry last season, but his average yards before contact was just 1.2. Montgomery essentially made it just 1 yard before the first hit came most of the time.

With Montgomery gone, Iowa State’s offensive line must improve for the Cyclones to take the next step.

Iowa State returns all five of its starters from a year ago, which can be seen two ways:

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

One — it’s a lot of experience that’s returning and a lot of experience that they can grow from.

Or two — it’s returning all of its starters from an offensive line that wasn’t that good to begin with, so why would it be any better?

Iowa State’s offensive line did progress as the season went on and it played its best game in the Alamo Bowl against Washington State, so that would indicate option one. But the reality will probably be somewhere in the middle.

 

4. Who replaces Hakeem Butler and David Montgomery?

Speaking of Montgomery, he and receiver Hakeem Butler declared for the NFL Draft after last season. They accounted for 53 percent of Iowa State’s total offense.

Iowa State’s first depth chart of the season had five running backs listed who could be the starter, including two true freshmen.

So that battle will go at least until the first game of the season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a running back by committee approach.

At receiver, Iowa State has proven players in Deshaunte Jones and Tarique Milton. They also brought in Arkansas graduate transfer La’Michael Pettway, who led the Razorbacks in receiving last season.

Receiver seems more stable than running back but replacing a safety blanket like Butler can be tricky.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

5. Can the Cyclones live up to expectations?

The Cyclones have had back-to-back eight-win seasons.

Eight wins seems to be the reasonable expectation again. Ten wins is the ceiling with an opportunity to play in the Big 12 championship game. And the floor is 6-6 and a trip to lower-tier bowl game.

A 6-6 mark used to be considered a good season for Iowa State. But Campbell has raised the expectations. Now can his team handle those expectations?

l Comments: benv43@gmail.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.