AMES — On paper, Iowa State football loses nearly 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns from its graduated seniors.
Allen Lazard, Marchie Murdock and Trever Ryen were staples of Iowa State’s offense last season.
The Cyclones have to rely on a mostly new cast for their receiving production.
Hakeem Butler is the bell cow of the bunch in 2018. He proved he had big-play ability in 2017, hauling in 41 receptions for 697 yards and seven touchdowns.
Butler is a big target at 6-foot-6 with sneaky speed. He played mostly out of the slot last season, but through fall camp, he’s played on the inside and the outside — wherever coach Matt Campbell can create the best mismatch for the situation.
“I think good players can play anywhere,” Campbell said. “Hakeem is a guy who, in some starting situations, was on the outside and at other times he was on the inside. He’s big, he can really run and what my great challenge for Hakeem is just consistency.
“That’s our receiver position as a whole. We did some really positive things last season, but being consistent in the most critical moments — that’s the difference between being a good receiver group and an elite receiver group. To me, we have guys that have the ability to live in that elite wide receiver group.”
Butler, a junior, is without a doubt Iowa State’s No. 1 target. But senior Matt Eaton is healthy for the first time since he’s been a Cyclone and he’s ready to step into a bigger role, too.
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He caught 21 passes for 208 yards and four touchdowns last season. Now that he’s healthy he wants to step into a bigger playing and leadership role.
“(Lazard, Murdock and Ryen) did a tremendous job leading and setting the example for me and Hakeem Butler to walk into,” Butler said.
They’ll be leading a young receiving corps in 2018. The only other player who has seen significant playing time is junior Deshaunte Jones.
But the word most often thrown around in describing the receiving room is “talent.”
Campbell and receiving coach Bryan Gasser both believe Iowa State has top-end receiving talent.
So does Eaton.
“We’re stacked with tremendous talent,” Eaton said. “This group of receivers has crazy talent all over. Y’all can definitely expect an explosive group. We’re going to try and be the best in the country.”
Redshirt freshman Tarique Milton, redshirt freshman Josh Johnson, redshirt sophomore Jalen Martin and redshirt sophomore Landen Akers are all young guys to keep an eye on.
“We have guys from top to bottom that can go play right now,” Butler said. “Tarique, he’s a freak with his size and hands he has to be that fast. Josh, there isn’t anybody in the country that runs routes like he does. Landen, he’s the definition of freak — fastest, highest jumper, everything.”
The tight end position is one Campbell needs to step up. Chase Allen was an All-Big 12 second team selection a year ago despite only catching four passes. His biggest impact came in the running game.
But Campbell hopes the tight ends can have a bigger impact in the receiving aspect this season.
Allen, a redshirt sophomore was supposed to be more of a receiving tight end when he was recruited to Iowa State at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds and redshirt sophomore Dylan Soehner has been described as an athletic freak at 6-foot-7 and 271 pounds.
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“We’ve been waiting for those guys to grow up,” tight ends coach Alex Golesh said in the spring. “And I told coach, his opening comments on the tight ends is always, ‘They’re young and they’re getting older.’ I literally slammed my book down in that room and I said, ‘If I hear that one more time that we’re young or that we’re getting older — I’m sick of it. This is the third year now for all of those guys.’
“We’re not young anymore and I’m sick of hearing about it to be honest with you. They’re third-year players and they need to play like they’re third-year players. It’s been an interesting task, because I’ve watched all those guys develop and it’s been fun because they’ve developed in our offense and in our system.”
Iowa State’s offensive start is David Montgomery, but if Butler and the receivers can keep the defense honest — and at times make the big play — it’ll give Montgomery more room to work.
The Cyclones have a lot of unproven talent, but if it can come together, Iowa State could have a Swiss Army Knife offensive attack.
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