Matt Campbell has quickly risen up the Big 12 ranks: he’s jumped to third on the league’s seniority list
Randy Peterson, email@example.com
AMES, Ia. — Let’s get this out there quickly: No burying the lead. No dancing around Iowa State football’s 1,500-pound position.
The difference between a good 2019 season and a great 2019 season rests with the offensive line.
David Montgomery has taken his bullish running to the NFL. Kene Nwangwu, Breece Hall, Sheldon Croney — or whoever gets a majority of the rushes — won’t create as many holes as the powerful and hard-to-tackle Montgomery.
The guy so all-around wonderful that he was named Big 12’s Male Sportsman of the Year, a very prestigious award, isn’t everyone’s offensive security blanket anymore.
It’s time for an improving offensive line to finally be improved enough to be a factor in winning significant football games.
“Us being seniors, we take a lot more accountability to it,” right tackle Bryce Meeker told the Register during a recent conversation. “Maybe when we were younger, we were looking for that senior to lead us. Now, it’s our time.
“We have to take that next step. Going into this year, it’s going to be a completely different atmosphere as far as offensive line. I’m excited for it.
“There’s no excuses.”
The line got better as last season progressed, but the penalties in the Alamo Bowl — in Game No. 13 — were killers. That can’t happen if the Cyclones are going to be as good as most everyone expects — worthy enough to mentioned in the same sentence as Oklahoma and Texas.
It’ll be a veteran group. It’ll have decent depth. The top six played high school ball right here in Iowa, and you know what they say about our corn-fed young’uns — many grow up to become very good linemen.
They’re part of a team that’s so experienced that eight or nine wins can be reality and not a dream. Brock Purdy is back. The defensive line will be one of the best in the Big 12.
We know those starters, but what about other positions?
Depth charts are only a guide. They’re useful, yet not always conclusive. Iowa State’s first one is usually released in mid-July. Here’s a guess what it might look like, using the grades the players be when the season starts.
Projected starters (left to right):Julian Good-Jones (Sr.), Collin Olson (Sr.), Colin Newell (So.), Josh Knipfel (Sr.), Bryce Meeker (Sr.).
Others to watch: Sean Foster (Junior), Trevor Downing (RFr.) and Joey Ramos (RFr.).
Thoughts: There’s a whopping 107 career starts among those believed to be the first five for the Aug. 31 opener against Northern Iowa at Jack Trice Stadium. There’s 114 total when you add reserve Sean Foster’s seven career starts.
That’s a bunch, and that total includes Good-Jones, Knipfel and Meeker, who all started in the big 2017 win at No. 3 Oklahoma. It’s the first time since 2014 that the Cyclones return all five offensive line starters.
Downing, a strapping 6-foot-4, 300-pounder who grew up on a farm near Creston, is waiting in the wings, a redshirt freshman who played a little last season. Coaches have used his name and potential starter in the same sentence since last spring. Nothing’s changed this summer.
Projected starter: Brock Purdy (So.)
Others to Watch: The only question here is who’s his immediate backup — Re-al Mitchell (RFr.), John Kolar (Sr.) or true freshman Easton Dean.
Thoughts: Purdy will be among the Big 12’s top three quarterbacks — at least behind Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger. The Cyclones won six of Purdy’s eight starts, after surging onto the radar with a 318-yard, 18-of-23 performance off the bench during a 48-42 victory at Oklahoma State.
He passed for 2,250 passing yards and 16 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. He was 15th nationally in completion percentage (66.4 percent), fourth nationally in yards per completion (15.4) and was ESPN’s Big 12 freshman of the year.
Hakeem Butler, to whom Purdy threw 32.3 percent of his passes and 26.7 percent of the rookie’s 146 completions, is in the NFL.
Translated: Purdy must find another go-to target.
Projected starter: Kene Nwangwu (Jr.)
Others to watch: Sheldon Croney (Sr.), Breece Hall (TrFr.), Johnnie Lange (So.), Jirehl Brock (TrFr.)
Thoughts: With David Montgomery now a Chicago Bear, the position is as wide open as it’s been in a while. Croney is the veteran, but Nwangwu has the most flash and dash potential. Keep an eye on true freshman Breece Hall, too, and don’t be shocked if he’s an eventual rookie starter — possibly by the Big 12 opener at Baylor on Sept. 28.
Nwangwu was third on the team in rushing last season — behind Montgomery and Purdy. He’s also one of the nation’s best kickoff returners, leading the Big 12 and ranking 12th nationally with a 26.8-yard average.
“The first thing you see about Kene is that he’s a good runner,” offensive coordinator Tom Manning said about the guy generally considered the fastest on the team. “I see him as a running back, but he also has the ability to get the ball on the edge and stretch the defense. We want to be creative in different ways to get him the football.”
Projected starters: TE: Charlie Kolar (So.). Receivers: Deshaunte Jones (Sr.), Tarique Milton (So.), La’Michael Pettway (Sr.).
Others to watch: Chase Allen (Jr.), Dylan Soehner (Jr.), Landen Akers (Jr.), Joseph Scates (RFr.), Carson Schleker (RFr.), Sean Shaw (RFr.), Jalen Martin (Jr.), Darren Wilson (Jr.)
Thoughts: It’s a young position — excluding tight ends, the only non-running backs that have caught passes at Iowa State are Milton, Jones, Akers and Martin. Milton and Jones have combined for 142 receptions, while Akers and Martin have just 16.
Pettway came to the program with 37 receptions for 601 yards and five touchdowns at Arkansas. Wilson caught 20 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns for Butler Community College last season.
This will continue to be a strong position, despite the Iowa State-based inexperience, but who inherits Butler’s targets?
Projected starters: JaQuan Bailey (Sr.), Jamahl Johnson (Sr.), Ray Lima (Sr.), Enyi Uwazurike (Jr.).
Others to watch: Matt Leo (Sr.), Tucker Robertson (So.), Zach Petersen (So.), Isaiah Lee (RFr.).
Thoughts: This is the strength of the team.
Bailey and Lima are among the Big 12’s finest — Bailey, a 33-game starter who already shares Iowa State’s career sacks record, and Lima, a two-time all-conference pick despite not having eye-popping statistics.
He’s the unsung guy that takes on double-teams. He’s the middle guy that enables the linebackers to do their thing. He’s essentially the player that makes the three-man front work.
This position features players with a combined 67 starts – players that last season helped a defense allow opponents a league-fewest 22.9 points a game, and just 115.0 yards a game rushing, also best in the Big 12.
Still not sold on it being the strength of the team?
Projected starters: Marcel Spears (Sr.), Mike Rose (So.), Will McDonald (RFr.).
Others to watch: Jake Hummel (Jr.), O’Rien Vance (So.), Chandler Pulvermacher (RFr.).
Thoughts: Spears has returned two of his four career picks for touchdowns. He’s the leader of this solid and veteran group after being named Defensive MVP of the Alamo Bowl, and after helping the defense to one of its best seasons ever.
He’s the leader, despite the strong showing of true freshman middle linebacker Mike Rose, the first Iowa State freshman defensive player to start a season-opening game since 2006. If Rose keeps up this pace, he’ll have a chance to be mentioned in the same along with the best linebackers in Cyclones history.
Projected starters: Safeties: Greg Eisworth (Sr.), Braxton Lewis (Sr.); Corners: Anthony Johnson (So.), Datrone Young (So.), Star position: Arnold Azunna (Jr.).
Others to watch: Justin Bickham (Sr.), Lawrence White (Jr.), Jaeveyon Morton (RFr.), Keontae Jones (So.), Tayvonn Kyle (RFr.).
Thoughts: Eisworth, the Big 12’s defensive newcomer of the year in 2018, can move around and play all five secondary positions. Lewis had interceptions in three consecutive games.
They’re among a group that’s so-so with experience, but big on speed and athleticism. Replacing Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne won’t be as easy as just plugging in someone else.
Place-kicker: Connor Assalley (Jr.); Punter: Corey Dunn (Jr.); Kick returner: Kene Nwangwu (Sr.); Punt returner: Tarique Milton (So).
Thoughts: Add four-year starting deep snapper Steve Wirtel, and this is a good position group that’s returning en masse from last season. Assalley made 14 of his 20 field goal attempts. Nwangwu is one of the nation’s top kickoff returners. His 26.8-yard career return average is the best in school history.
Remember, this is just a pulling back of the curtain of what could be Iowa State’s pre-UNI depth chart. A lot can happen before that 11 a.m. Aug. 31 opener at Jack Trice Stadium, however …
If fall practice goes as the coaches hope it goes, then this could (should?) be better than the Cyclones’ 2018 season.
And with offensive coordinator Tom Manning returning to run the offense after a year coaching Indianapolis Colts tight ends, cagey veteran Jon Heacock still working his genius with the defense, then, absolutely, this season has nine-win potential.
Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson has been with the Register for parts of five decades. Randy writes opinion and analysis of Iowa State football and basketball. You can reach Randy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @RandyPete.
Source: Des Moines Register