The following is an exclusive to Cyclone Fanatic season preview written by former Iowa State running back Jeff Woody.
Here it is, #CyclONEnation – football season is upon us. Finally. After seemingly six years, it has finally returned from last season. When we last saw our Cyclones, they made a comeback for the record books one week after blowing the doors off of Kansas (probably because the hinges on those doors were frozen). Then the basketball team was one healthy bone away from possibly playing for a Final Four or even better. So naturally that would lead to nothing but unbridled confidence among the fanbase about a wildly successful season, eh? Anyone? Oh, right. We only won one other game last year, along with statistically the worst three-game skid in the history of the school’s football program. But I’m here to recharge that optimism, or possibly just dispel pessimism. Here is my case for the best!
In the offseason, Iowa State made one of the sneaky-biggest coaching moves in the country with the hiring of new offensive coordinator, Mark Mangino. This is a coach who has been successful wherever he’s been, a list that includes one-third of the other teams in our conference (KSU, KU, OU). This is something that has not been present in Ames for a long time. Not the having of a talented coordinator (see Tom Herman), but having an experienced offensive coach who knows exactly what he needs. What Herman lacked in his coaching repertoire was the work experience to tell Coach Rhoads, "I’ve got this, go back to the defensive side," since Rhoads, admittedly, is a defensive guy who’d like to be with the defense. Mangino has that, and actually has more head coaching experience than his new boss.
What is equally as important as the arrival of Mangino is the departure of Coach Klenakis. He was, and I am putting this as politely as I can, a square peg in a round hole in Ames. No tears were shed in the locker room when the news came out that he decided to join Bobby Petrino’s staff at Louisville. Fundamentally, the system he brought with him was as brilliant as it was ridiculous. Every play had a series of rules that needed to be followed, based on the alignment of the defensive player. Sounds reasonable, right? Not the amount of contingencies in this playbook it doesn’t.
True example: in a certain formation’s pass protection playcall, the interior defensive lineman (the 3-technique…if you don’t know what this is, call into the Cyclone Fanatic Radio Show to have me explain) was to be assessed by his stance. If this player’s right hand was down with his right foot back, the play proceeds as normal. If the player’s left hand was down with his right foot back, the center looked at the lineman next to him. If that player’s left hand was also down, there was a higher percentage of a line stunt, so a call was to be made down the line to another lineman, who was to alert him of a possible stunt. Then, as the center addresses the ball and the alignment of the defensive lineman was more finalized, the center checked the depth at which his foot was back. If it was up closer to his other foot, the center would look at the linebacker and analyze his alignment and make another call, confirming the stunt. That would tell the guard where they think that guy was going, and the guard had to follow him there, where he would have to shove a 300-pound defensive lineman completely across the center’s body and then quickly change directions and set to accept the defensive end coming from the outside on the rest of the stunt. In football, pre-play recognition is key, but you can’t expect an assessment like that to be made as quickly as was desired by the players when you have exactly 40 seconds between plays. Now the plan for that protection? Call out the possible stunt and zone the whole thing, which eliminates a whole load of thinking, providing the players to react, not process information.
Due to all of this confusion, offensive linemen ended up in poor spots, creating another reason for hope for the 2014-15 season: depth. More players getting quality reps in games, whether they be blowouts or close contests, is terrific for the next year. Especially at offensive line, where some injuries are bound to happen based on them being the only players on the field who have no visual of where the ball or ball carrier is going. This is one thing that the ‘Clones can rest their hats on.
That big, talented group of linemen are protecting and blocking for one of the most explosive groups of playmakers in the conference. Skill players Aaron Wimberly, Quenton Bundrage, E.J. Bibbs, Jarvis West, DeVondrick Nealy, Dondre Daley, and P.J. Harris can really make plays. Newcomers Allen Lazard and D’Vario Montgomery are highly touted and with the depth of talent being what it is, any contribution is just a flower in the cap of the offense. The only question about productivity in this group will be quarterback play, which brings up the next point.
Sam Richardson is going to be healthy, at least we hope. And if he isn’t, his backup is far more than capable. When Sam was as beat up as he was during the majority of the season last year, Rohach wasn’t inserted into the lineup because of his being a complete unknown. Fifty-percent of a known commodity was better than 100 percent of a mystery in the coaches’ eyes. But now, there is no mystery of what is behind Sam. If he gets banged up again, he won’t have to play through a simultaneous high ankle sprain, deep bruising on his legs due to being hit by a car, and a sprained thumb on his throwing hand.
But for the sake of optimism, let’s say he stays healthy. A healthy Sam is a terrific QB. Think back to KU in Lawrence two years ago. That is what he is capable of doing all the time, and it would be no surprise to anyone on the team. All he needs to have to be that successful all the time is a consistent presence to know when to be aggressive and when to pull back because he’s off at that point in the game. Enter Mark Mangino, who took Todd Reesing to an elite, Orange Bowl-winning level. The defense won’t be that bad, either.
The secondary may not be as experienced as last year’s group, but they are surely faster and just as physical. T.J. Mucherson hits like a truck, despite his smaller frame, and Kamari Cotton-Moya is as fast as he is tough. Seriously, the guy’s come through a gunshot wound and a torn Achilles. Nigel Tribune is a future NFL player at one corner and opposite him is either a bulldog or a greyhound (Sam Richardson and Kenneth Lynn, respectively). This group may look a little out of sorts early but with Wally Burnham at the helm, things will get done the right way. And his linebackers will be leading the way.
There may not be a tremendous amount of experience in the linebacking corps, but wow, is there talent. Seniors Drake Ferch and Jevohn Miller are hardworking, nose to the grindstone, lunchpail type guys. The standouts for future times are Alton Meeks and Luke Knott. Meeks took a little while to get used to his role as a linebacker but since embracing it, has grown leaps and bounds towards continuing the linebacker legacy that runs from Jesse Smith to Jeremiah George. The defensive line has two of the strongest leaders on this team, Brandon Jensen and Cory Morrissey. These are two very talented players who demand the best out of their teammates. This attitude will rub off on their linemates, who will have no choice but to elevate their game.
For this team to be truly successful, three things HAVE to happen (in my opinion):
1 – That defensive line, especially the ends Morrissey, Mitchell Meyers, and possibly a sub (Trent Taylor or Darius White) MUST put pressure on the quarterback. That is something that has been lacking since the days of Ace Bowen and Chris Lyle. If you can hurry the passer into rushing throws, not even necessarily getting sacks, the rest of the defense can pounce on the inevitable mistakes.
2 – Quarterback play must be consistent. Not stellar, not trying to be the sole reason why the team wins the game. Consistent. With all the playmakers on the edges, Sam’s job will truly be to get them the ball safely and let them go to work. Completion percentage and turnover ratio are going to be the two most telling stats of this, and if those numbers are good, the sky is the limit for this offense.
3 – Health. Guys need to stay healthy for this to work. This does not necessarily mean that these are the best players. A team on the field may not be the best 11 players out at a time, but if it is the same 11 players, guys will know their football neighbor as well as they know themselves. This allows for a complete trust that, "If I do my job, the play will be successful because I know everyone else will do theirs."
With all of these things being very possible, the outlook of the season looks very bright. I am extremely excited for this season to start on Saturday and it starts with a bang. Bring it on, North Dakota State. We are ready for a fantastic season, and you’re the first up.
— Jeff Woody