AMES — Iowa State lost four of its five starters along the offensive line from last season due to graduation.
Julian Good-Jones and Josh Knipfel were essentially starters from the first moment they put on an Iowa State uniform and Bryce Meeker was a three-year starter.
The Cyclones did have Colin Newell coming back from injury, but the offensive line remained a huge question mark. Coach Matt Campbell said in the offseason that he thought the 2020 group was as talented as any he’s coached but they still needed to prove themselves on the field.
Through two games, they’ve not only proven it, they’ve proven they have depth and can handle adversity.
Running back Breece Hall has had back-to-back 100-yard rushing games thanks to the blocks set up by the line. Quarterback Brock Purdy has only been sacked three times this season.
“We know how good Brock and Breece can be when we’re actually blocking up front,” left tackle Sean Foster said. “We take a lot of responsibility in making sure that Breece, Kene (Nwangwu) and Johnnie (Lang) all have open holes and making sure Brock has a clean pocket. We know that if you give Brock time, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in college football.”
It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the offensive line, either. In Iowa State’s first game against Louisiana, Trevor Downing, arguably the Cyclones’ best lineman, went down with an injury.
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Against TCU, Derek Schweiger moved from right guard to fill Downing’s left guard role and freshman Darrell Simmons was inserted at right guard. Schwieger and Simmons did not disappoint, despite being in new roles.
“I think when you have young talent, you’re hungry and, obviously, it’s never great to lose a really good player like Trevor is, but I don’t think anybody flinched,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of guys that have confidence and are looking forward to their opportunity to show what they can do in that group.
“Certainly Darrell Simmons got that opportunity and made the most of it. I thought Derek Schweiger, he’s been a little bit of a kingpin in terms of playing elite football early on. What he did to go from right guard to left guard in a week’s time and then to play the way he did (at) left guard, I thought was really, really special.”
Hall took note of Simmons’ impressive play and the holes Simmons opened up for him.
“Trevor going down, that sucked, but Darrell Simmons stepped in and had a really good game,” Hall said. “All of our O-linemen have been playing real good and consistent and getting better week by week, so it’s been real good to see their progress.”
Downing is still day-to-day, Campbell said, and eventually he’ll come back and be re-inserted into Iowa State’s line. If it’s this week, Simmons and Schweiger filled in admirably. If it’s not this week, it appears the line will be able to hold its own without him, which isn’t something it could always say in years past if the best offensive lineman was out.
“This offseason was really big for our whole offensive line,” Foster said. “In the past, our offensive line hasn’t been as close as it is this year. Our big thing this offseason was making sure the whole offensive line was on the same page. Yes, Trevor went down, but there wasn’t really a missed step with Darrell coming in.”
The Cyclone offensive line has shown glimpses of its ability. But like with anything when it comes to Campbell, it’s about consistency.
“There was a lot of great growth between week 1 and week 2,” Campbell said. “The way they were able to play in critical moments last week was really big. I said this early in the year, but I feel like we have a chance to be a really good offensive line. In both games we’ve seen flashes of that. Then it’s about the consistency — that’s what we’re looking for.
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“Them developing a standard of excellence, at least early in the season, to where we want to go and what we want to play to. Hopefully by the end of the season, we’ve taken a really huge step forward. I think we’re at least on the right track right now.”