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Cyclones seek improvement in Chizik's 2nd season

by Pete Fiutak

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Updated: July 26, 2008, 8:24 PM EST 2 comments

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Calling a football team pesky is sort of like calling a beautiful woman cute. No football team wants to be pesky.

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  • Pesky is that annoying fly that buzzes around bothering you before it gets squished. Pesky is the team that gives it the old college try before falling valiantly to a more talented power. Pesky is happy to be in the hunt for a bowl, any bowl, but doesn't have enough in the bag to get there.

Iowa State is pesky.
This is a bad time to try rebuilding in the Big 12 as the league, at least for this year, seems to have decided it's time to become the best conference in America. Iowa State could be far better than it's been over the last two losing seasons, and it still might have nothing to show for it.
The team doesn't have anywhere near the top-to-bottom talent to dream about winning the North, and depending on the Oct. 11 date at Baylor, it could be the 12th-best team in the league. But that doesn't mean there won't be an upset or two along the way to screw things up.
The Cyclones did a great job in Gene Chizik's first year of improving as the season went on by giving Oklahoma all it could handle, and beating Kansas State and Colorado in the final two home games of the season. This year, there will be some of the same clunkers here and there against someone like Missouri or Kansas, but there's no Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech (a monster break this year) to deal with, and considering the dates against the Tigers and Jayhawks are in Ames, there isn't any one game that Iowa State won't have a puncher's chance in.
Iowa State has never been a superpower and it has always struggled to find itself among the heavyweights in the Big 8 and now the Big 12, but improvements are being made. Renovations to the stadium, a commitment to better facilities, and having a promising coaching staff are a start. The wins have to start coming, and then being pesky might be a good thing. It could be a stepping stone to potentially being great, but that'll have to come down the road.
What to look for on offense: An interesting quarterback situation. In a league that turned out to be loaded with great quarterbacks, Bret Meyer was supposed to be a weapon and a major plus for the Cyclones. He wasn't. Now he's gone, and exciting playmakers Austen Arnaud and Phillip Bates will work in what should be one of the tougher quarterback rotations to get a handle on. They can both move, but Bates, a wide receiver, is also a dangerous runner. The coaching staff will go with the right quarterback for the right situation.
What to look for on defense: Much better pass defense numbers early on. Be prepared for stories in early October about how last year's secondary that allowed 254 yards per game is night-and-day better. Don't be fooled. Yes, ISU gets all four starters back and the pass rush should be more helpful, but the biggest plus will be playing South Dakota State, Kent State, Iowa, and UNLV before getting an off-week. And then come the games against Kansas and Baylor, and things will change in a big hurry.
This team will be much better if: It can push the ball down the field. Even when the offense had Meyer at the helm and deep-play extraordinaire Todd Blythe in the receiving corps, the passing game averaged a pathetic 5.8 yards per pass and 9.6 yards per completion. The running backs are excellent, but they're going to need room to move. There's plenty of speed in the receiving corps, but now it has to mean something.
The Schedule: The Cyclones will look to build on the strong end to the 2007 season with easy openers against South Dakota State and Kent State. The Iowa game is always a toss up, but the Hawkeyes should be better, and the end of the non-conference slate at UNLV won't be as easy as it looks. After a week off it's eight games in eight weeks as ISU flies through its Big 12 schedule without a break until the end of November. Getting Baylor and Oklahoma State from the South is a huge break, but both games are on the road. Closing out with three road games in four weeks, with the one home date coming against Missouri, means a big early start is a must.
Best Offensive Player: Sophomore RB Alexander Robinson and Senior RB J.J. Bass. Robinson was a spark plug for the offense late last year as the main man in the final four games. Small, quick, and very talented, he should be the focal point of the running game early on. Powerback Jason Scales will help the cause, while the offense could use Bass in the mix. The former JUCO transfer showed great promise and potential to be sure-thing weapon, but he hurt a shoulder was suspended from spring ball, and will be the third man in the mix, at best, if he's back this fall.
Best Defensive Player: Senior DE Kurtis Taylor. There's no argument if you want to fight for CB Allen Bell as the team's best defender. Bell is a great tackler who's growing into a solid shut-down corner, while Taylor is the team's best pass rusher and a lone wolf at times last year when it came to getting into the backfield. Active against the run along with being able to get to the quarterback, Taylor needs to be the star of the line that everything revolves around.
Key players to a successful season: Junior LBs Fred Garrin and Josh Raven. With defensive back speed and a great motor, Michael Bibbs is supposed to step in for second-leading tackler Jon Banks at one outside spot and the team won't skip a beat. Replacing Alvin Bowen, the team's do-it-all defensive star, on the weakside will be a problem. Garrin will get the opening day call, while Raven will see more than his share of time in the rotation. These two can't just be decent; they'll have to be excellent.
The season will be a success if: The Cyclones win six games. It's possible if there are no mistakes and a few big upsets along the way. The Cyclones have to beat South Dakota State, Kent State and UNLV, and they'll have to come out of Waco with a win over Baylor. The Iowa game is always a toss-up, and it wouldn't be a total shock if they beat Nebraska or Texas A&M at home. However, there can't be any slips against teams their own size.

Offensive coordinator Robert McFarland needed all year to finally get the offense moving after it did next to nothing for the first eight games, averaging just 15 points per outing. The attack didn't explode, but it got better, and now there should be a big jump in production even without veteran QB Bret Meyer and top WR Todd Blythe. The line was night-and-day better than in 2006, and it should be far superior this year with four returning starters and at least two of them being knocked out of jobs by better prospects. The running back trio of Alexander Robinson, Jason Scales and J.J. Bass is excellent. The key will be the passing game. Austen Arnaud and former WR Phillip Bates will combine for the quarterback job, while a dangerous receiver or two has to step up with Blythe not there to catch all the touchdown passes.
Quarterbacks: Playing a combination of Austen Arnaud and Phillip Bates might not seem like the best idea on the surface, but each can play and the rotation should allow the coaching staff to be versatile with what they do. Throw in true freshman Jerome Tiller, who might play right away with his strong rushing ability, and the quarterback situation should be interesting. After last year when the passing game threw for just nine touchdowns and 14 interceptions, things can't be that much worse. The coaching staff will likely go with the right quarterback for the right situation. While Arnaud can run, he's not the athlete that Bates is, while Arnaud will be on the field when the Cyclones need to throw.
Running Backs: The running backs should be a strength this year, and they'll only be better next year when Florida transfer Bo Williams is ready to roll. Going into the fall, Alexander Robinson is the starter, Jason Scales is second, and J.J. Bass, assuming he's off his suspension, is third, but that could quickly change depending on the matchup and which way the wind is blowing. They're all No. 1 backs. The ground game averaged a mere 3.1 yards per carry with 1,484 yards on the year with 16 touchdowns, but the returning backs are too good to not do far more. Now they need more help from the line.
Receivers: There's a good mix of veterans and rising unknowns, but there isn't anyone who's going to throw a big scare into secondaries quite yet. There's speed, size, and experience, and now it all needs to come together to create a more effective passing game. Big plays will be the key after the passing game averaged a pathetic 9.6 yards per catch. R.J. Sumrall and Marques Hamilton are strong, big veterans who have been around long enough to be good, reliable playmakers to keep the chains moving. They might not be fantastic, but they're good enough to ease in the new quarterbacks. Now the targets have to score. Former star Todd Blythe caught 13 of the team's 21 touchdown passes over the last two years. Hamilton has just two of them and Sumrall doesn't have any. Who's going to be the one to break through and get into the end zone on big plays?
Offensive Line: It got swept under the rug with all the great coaching jobs done in the Big 12 last year, but the work done by offensive coordinator Robert McFarland and his group with a line that did nothing, nothing in 2006 has to be considered one of the best. After allowing 57 sacks in 2006, the line gave up just 17 last year while doing a far better job for the running game. Now there's a great situation with four starters returning, emerging stars who are better than some of the steady veterans, and a few key cogs in Ben Lamaak and Doug Dedrick to keep it all together.

Defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt didn't exactly turn the defense into a killer, but it held its own at times considering the offense didn't do much. There were times when things got ugly, really ugly, but the D did a decent job of keeping the team in several games it had no business being a part of. The secondary that got toasted by the good Big 12 quarterbacks gets everyone back, but it needs help from a pass rush that wasn't consistent or effective enough. Losing outside linebackers Ace Bowen and Jon Banks is a killer, so the spotlight will be on Fred Garrin, Josh Raven and Michael Bibbs to shine. The line should be the strength of the D even though new tackles are taking over.
Defensive Line: The line wasn't bad last season against the run, but it was mediocre when it came to getting to the quarterback. There might not be any sure-thing all-stars to count on, but the coaching staff will work on wreaking more havoc and coming up with more big plays. With good depth, more experience, and some nice untested prospects to work with, the line should be even better despite losing Athyba Rubin and Bryce Braaksma on the inside. There should be a good end rotation. Rashawn Parker and Kurtis Taylor are the starters, but Christopher Lyle and Nick Frere showed enough this off-season to do far more. They're not going to push for the No. 1 jobs, but they can carve out bigger roles for themselves by getting to the quarterback more often.
Linebackers: It's hard to improve after losing talented producers like Ace Bowen and Jon Banks, arguably the two best players on the team last season, but the corps won't fall off the map. It's not a stretch to call Michael Bibbs and Fred Garrin the two keys to the season as they need to show they're ready for the Big 12 spotlight. If they're not terrific, the Cyclones won't improve. Size isn't as huge a problem as it was last year, but there still isn't much in the way of bulk with most of the linebackers short and around 225 pounds. Considering two new starters need to be broken in, the jury is still out on whether or not this group can hold up against power running teams.
Secondary: The knock on Gene Chizik defenses at Texas was that the secondary gave up way too many big plays and way too many passing yards. That's sort of why the Longhorns' NFL-caliber secondary of 2006 was among the least productive in America. There will be more of a pass rush and the DBs are more experienced, and better, but it'll be a shock if any passing game with a pulse can't flick its wrist and go for 200 yards. All four starters return, led by CB Chris Singleton, and while they weren't all that productive last year, the coaching staff seems confident that with experience brings production in this case. Cohesion won't be a problem. Special Teams: Bret Culbertson was an occasionally decent midrange kicker who struggled last year, missing eight of 13 shots from beyond 30 yards. In other words, he's replaceable. True freshman Zach Guyer needs to be a rock star right away, and while he has a good leg, it's not a top-shelf one. He should be decent from around 45 and in. Junior punter Mike Brandtner's average went down from close to 42 yards per kick to 39.4, but he did a much better job of placing the ball with 19 put inside the 20. While he's not going to make any all-star teams, he's good enough to be counted on to get the team out of trouble. R.J. Sumrall averaged 21.8 yards per kickoff return last year, but the team needs more help on punt returns after averaging just 3,9 yards per try.