Spring Football: Top offensive storylines

By Chris Williams, Publisher

Iowa State’s spring football practices begin on exactly one week from today. It’s now time for us to take a look ahead at what some of the top storylines will be looking ahead to Iowa State’s April 17 Spring Game. Here are just a few on the offensive side of the football.

Finding a backup running back

We all know that Alexander Robinson is the man. As a junior. A-Rob ran for 1,232 yards and six touchdowns for the Cyclones while battling injuries all season long. How do you keep that from happening again? Iowa State needs to keep number 33 healthy.

During my offseason interviews with Iowa State’s offensive assistant coaching staff this winter, it became clear to me that finding depth at running back is an absolute priority this spring. Take offensive coordinator Tom Herman’s word for it.

“We have got to find a way to take some of the load off of A-Rob,” Herman said in February. “It will be interested to see who separates themselves in this offseason and those 15 practices of spring ball.”

Those running backs who will be fighting for the backup spot include: Beau Blankenship, Bo Williams, James White and Jeff Woody.

This battle looks to be wide-open heading into next week. James White is a guy who really intrigues me. White, a 5-foot-7, 181-pound red-shirt freshman, sat out last season and was reportedly very salty in his scout team work.

“I think that we are all interested to see what James White can do on a down-to-down basis,” Herman said. “He has looked really good in the scrimmages that we had throughout bowl practice and things of that nature so we are excited to see with him.”

Blankenship and Williams both had chances to play last year but never really cracked the lineup to gather much playing time. Blankenship ran the ball four times for 11 yards while Williams carried it twice for 50 yards. You all remember that famous 44-yard carry at A&M right? That thing is an Internet legend. It actually shut down this website for a period of time!

Williams will be attempting to learn the mental side of the game once again this spring.

“Physically, he has a lot of things that he can do,” said Iowa State running backs coach Kenneth Pope. “The thing that keeps holding him back is that he needs to grasp the whole offense. That is the thing that slowed him down, just being able to grasp the whole offense.”

According to numerous members of Iowa State’s coaching staff, Iowa native Jeff Woody is an extremely intriguing prospect. From what I’ve been told, Woody, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound red-shirt freshman out of Southeast Polk, is a dark horse to see some playing time in 2010.

A quarterback controversy?

There will be those out there who try and say that Jerome Tiller will give senior Austen Arnaud a run for his money this spring and during camp later on this summer. I just don’t buy it. But still, I have to take the coaches at their word. When I interviewed Herman back in February, he was vocal that if Tiller is the better man, he will play.

“We will see who decides and makes that decision that they are going to be the guy who we can count on the most,” Herman said. “Obviously, with Austen’s experience and leadership ability, he certainly has that opportunity.”

Arnaud was inefficient during his junior campaign going 178-for-303 with throwing 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. While Arnaud was out with a hand injury, Tiller went 41-for-73 with one touchdown and four interceptions. Tiller is also credited as the quarterback who led the Cyclones to their upset win over Nebraska on Oct. 24.

I’d be a little more into this controversy talk if Tiller had shown me that he was ready to be the starter next season. He won the game at Nebraska, but eight turnovers were forced by the Iowa State defense in a contest where he went 9-of-19 for 47 yards. Does he have a future at Iowa State? Sure. In fact, I bet that we’ll see him get snaps in just about every game next season. But I haven’t seen enough to convince me that he gives this football team a better chance to win than Arnaud at this point in time.

Having said all of that, Arnaud obviously needs to take care of the football.

Another prospect who will be in the mix is red-shirt freshman and Pennsylvania native James Capello. Capello is best known for his tremendous accuracy while throwing the football. Tom Herman recently told me that Capell has had a fine offseason in the weight room.

“He came in overweigh and kind of pudgy,” Herman said. “He has really trimmed down and gotten back to the athlete that we saw on high school tape.

If somehow Capello could emerge as a competitor for the starting job, it would be a very pleasant surprise for everyone involved. That is definitely an extreme long shot though. Don’t hold your breath. Not this year at least.

In my opinion, this job is Arnaud’s to lose. He would have to go in the wrong way fast to not be Iowa State’s primary gunslinger in 2010.

Darius Reynolds returns

Improvement at wide receiver is a must if the Cyclone offense wants to break out next fall. Iowa State’s passing offense was ranked 94th nationally in 2009 averaging 184.69 yards a game. That was behind a solid offensive line and a consistent running game.

Injuries really plagued this group last season, specifically hurting the trio of Darius Reynolds, Darius Darks and Sedrick Johnson.

Reynolds missed the majority of the season with a broken leg and he’ll be back as a junior after being granted a medical red-shirt by the NCAA. Reynolds played in four games last year for Iowa State in which he struggled catching 13 passes for 72 yards and no touchdowns. Reynolds has been moving along well for a while now, as I’ve been told that he actually could have played in Iowa State’s bowl game last December.

After sitting out a season, how will Reynolds look physically and mentally for the Cyclones this spring? We’ll be sure to keep an eye on that.

The battle at wide receiver will surely be interesting. While the others were nursing injuries, players like Jake Williams and Josh Lenz showed some real promise.

Shuffling the offensive line

Iowa State loses one starter off of its 2009 offensive line that statistically was the 21st best in America, by giving up only 1.23 sacks per game.

Unfortunately for this unit, is their anchor center, Reggie Stephens.

Senior Ben Lamaak will fill that void next season in a move that offensive line coach Bill Bliel is confident about.

“There will be some newness there but no more than there was with Reggie when we moved him there from guard to center,” Bliel said. “I think that with him knowing what I ask of the center and the load that I put on them, I think that he is excited about the challenge.”

Lamaak practiced taking snaps from the quarterback all throughout last fall. Lamaak shouldn’t have any problems picking up where Stephens left off as far as leadership goes. He’s well liked in the locker room and has shown impressive commitment to the program throughout his entire career.

In addition to Lamaak, three other starters return from last year’s line including Alex Alverez, Scott Haughton and Kelechi Osemele.

From the sounds of things, the staff will try Haughton out at guard leaving a spot open at right tackle. My educated guess is that sophomore Brayden Burris will be the guy ready to step in at that position.

Meanwhile, Mike Bangston, Sean Smith, Trey Baysinger, Zack Spears and Hayworth Hicks should all be in the mix as well.

Check out later this week for our key defensive storylines heading into spring football practice.