Paul Rhoads is a man who has plenty of good qualities. He is very proud to coach at Iowa State, seems to have plenty of heart, and seems like a straight shooter. However, the Cyclones have not won very much in the last few years, and if Rhoads is to stick around for a few more seasons in Ames, then that needs to change. Also, as a complete side thought, this is my second favorite YouTube video involving a Big 12 coach, I’m pretty sure most of you can guess which will be first.
The wide receiver group would most likely be the strength of this offense even without the return of Quenton Bundrage from an ACL injury. Bundrage is a huge boost though, if he can stay healthy. He caught 48 passes for 673 yards in 2013. D’Vario Montgomery and Allen Lazard are also guys who should make big contributions in the passing game again. Both topped 500 yards receiving and Montgomery even topped 600 yards.
Sam B. Richardson has also proven to be at least a capable quarterback in his time at Iowa State, although not outstanding. He passed for nearly 2,700 yards and 18 touchdowns to nine interceptions last season. That isn’t terrible, but it won’t win the Heisman either. It may not be necessary for him to take a huge step forward either though, all he needs to do for this team to improve is take care of the football and get the ball to his receivers so that they can make plays.
If experience and size alone are what are needed to make a good offensive line, then Iowa State should have one of the strongest. Unfortunately, the numbers suggest that they were a middle of the pack FBS line last year, and it’s unclear how much of a step forward this group has in them. With 75 career starts among the starters entering training camp though, improvement of some magnitude ought to be a safe bet. Daniel Burton leads that group at right guard with 20 career starts, and Jake Campos returns at left tackle after starting 11 games as a freshman.
A big question mark for this team heading into the season is who can make a contribution at running back. Tyler Brown rushed for 109 yards last season, and other than Sam B. Richardson, he is the leading returning rusher. He did rush for 4.5 yards per carry, so there’s a chance that he could be serviceable, especially if his line also improves.
Iowa State tried its hardest to take the “don’t” out of the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy last season, finishing dead last in the FBS in total defense. Granted, their competition level was much stiffer than some teams that finished ahead of them, but still that’s pretty terrible. Fortunately, several of the better players from that defense do return, so maybe there is improvement to be made this season.
The secondary is probably the most likely position group to get better with the return of both corners Sam E. Richardson and Nigel Tribune. Those two had over 50 tackles apiece and combined for seven interceptions and 19 pass break-ups, which is actually pretty decent for a top-25 defenses cornerbacks. Kamari Cotton-Moya also returns at safety where he had 66 tackles and eight passes broken up as a freshman. Senior Qujuan Floyd should fill out the starting lineup at the other safety spot. All in all, if you want to be optimistic about ISU’s defense improving this is the group to start with.
Linebacker is another story though. Luke Knott is the leading returning tackler, and has apparently been beat out considering Levi Peters was listed as the starter ahead of him heading into training camp. For reference, no linebacker on this roster recorded a sack last season and only two (Knott and Kane Seeley) had a tackle in the opposing team’s backfield, and neither of them are listed as starters heading into the season. Starting fresh might be the correct move for this group, but it also could mean that they are in for a pretty rough season against the high-powered offenses of the Big XII.
Several experienced defensive linemen do return, but given how bad this unit was last season it’s hard to tell if that’s actually a good thing. Having experience never hurts, but not all experience is equally valuable. This group did a relatively poor job of making plays behind the line of scrimmage last year with no returning player topping five tackles for loss or two sacks. Defensive end Trent Taylor hit both of those marks exactly though, and is the only returning starter in the front seven currently expected to reclaim his starting role.
I want this team to improve. I really do. I like and respect Paul Rhoads, but I fear that this program is stuck in a backwards slide and this won’t be the year they come out of it. The question marks up front maybe more than offset any improvement that the secondary will show. Offensively, the running game might be okay, but it also could be bad enough that defenses can sag back in coverage to blanket the talented receivers or send an array of pass blitzes and keep Sam B. Richardson either looking over his shoulder or laying on his back for much of the season. The non-conference schedule isn’t the easiest in the world either after facing FCS opponent Northern Iowa in the opener. Iowa at home and a road trip to Toledo wouldn’t necessarily be a fear-striking stretch against TCU or Baylor, but those will be tough wins for Iowa State. The silver lining is that they ought to pickup a conference win this season after failing to do so in 2014.