AMES — Jhaustin Thomas sensed it the moment he first stepped on Iowa State’s campus in June.
A closeness existed within the football program. A strong bond. A “brotherhood.”
All of that as well as the 6-6, 265-pound JUCO defensive end’s past trials and travails made Paul Rhoads’ Cyclone program feel like the best home for him.
“I committed because I felt like coach (Stan) Eggen, coach Rhoads, the whole Cyclone Nation believed in me,” the two-time former South Carolina recruit said during media day. “They trusted me and knew I could get it done (academically), so I just went with my instincts. I thought it was like a loyalty thing because they believed in me.”
Trust. Belief. Getting things done.
Despite going 5-19 the past two seasons, the 2015 version of the Cyclones is all about those things and more.
There’s cause for optimism (again), stemming from an ace receiving corps of Quenton Bundrage, Allen Lazard and D’Vario Montgomery and promising JUCO transfers such as Thomas and nose guard Demond Tucker.
“This team has this closeness and chemistry that I talk about,” Rhoads said. “It’s something that every coach strives to find, to have — and you need to have it as a starting point.”
There’s a basis for pessimism, too, beginning with that 5-19 mark over the past two years, as well as ISU ranking 102nd or worse last season in 11 of the key statistical categories the NCAA tracks, including rushing offense (105th) and total defense (125th).
“There’s no other way I’d want to have it than to have someone doubting me,” said possible starting tailback Tyler Brown, who leads a “thin” and inexperienced group with 24 career carries.
And, as fully-healed safety Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Kamari Cotton-Moya (he hasn’t had a headache in a long time) said, “The past is the past.”
That’s a recurring theme — and also a common learning point.
“Last season, we didn’t face adversity well at all,” said Bundrage, who emerged as an off-the-field leader after sitting out all but four snaps last season with a torn ACL. “When we were losing, guys just gave up, or didn’t want to play anymore. Now, going through spring ball and going through 10 weeks of summer workouts, I’ve seen that guys have stepped their game up. We have a lot of leaders. The culture have become stronger, which we call the brotherhood. I thin k that we’re going to be ready to go and we’re not going to give up. We’re going to show the fans that we can fight back.”
It’s imperative the Cyclones start strong if Rhoads is to potentially drive his team back to postseason play for the fourth time in his tenure— and first time since a 2012 Liberty Bowl loss to Tulsa.
Northern Iowa, ranked No. 10 in a preseason FCS poll, kicks things off Sept. 5. Iowa’s next. Both are at Jack Trice Stadium, which showcased it’s shiny South End Zone revamp Thursday.
“It’s beautiful,” Lazard said.
But the luster will fade for fans if those early games go awry, including a visit to Toledo that caps the pre-Big 12 slate.
“We definitely have to have a fast start,” said quarterback Sam Richardson, who set the school record for completions last season with 254. “Winning all the nonconference games, you have to win all of them to be successful and it just sets the tone for the season.”
The mindset’s there.
But are there enough not only willing, but also able bodies?
Another common term used Thursday: potential.
Thomas — who twice committed to South Carolina, but failed to academically qualify — personifies it. He’s 6-6, 265 and actually played basketball at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College last season.
His signature move?
“I like dunking on people,” Thomas said, laughing.
“I love dunking on people,” he reconsidered.
Thomas is the type of athlete SEC programs often covet. But Eggen’s doggedness on the recruiting trail helped make the Georgia native and junior-to-be steer his game north for a recharge and third chance.
““I trusted him,” said Thomas, who once shattered a backboard dunking in high school. “I feel like he’s the right guy; I feel like he’ll get me right. I like to be hard-coached and to get to my full potential — I think he’ll get me there.”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “I want somebody on me.”
Music to defensive coordinator Wally Burnham’s ears.
“He wants to be coached,” Burnham said. “He wants to learn. He wants to get better. He’s got goals he’s set, evidently. He’s got places he wants to reach and things he wants to do. If a guy doesn’t want to be coached, then you’ve got a hard time. You’ve got a hard time with him. And today’s young kids, you know, it’s what can you do for me now? That instant gratification/ And a kid that’s out there, with (Thomas’s) attitude, ‘OK, this is where I am now, so help me get to this next level” — they’re a joy to coach. And those kind of guys, you don’t have to get on them as much. They’re going to bust their butt trying to do what you said. they might mess up, but they’re busting their butt to do what you asked them to do.”
Burnham’s also noticed the chemistry project reaping dividends on the field.
It began in spring and deepened during summer workouts, which Rhoads said were highly productive.
“That’s whats been so pleasing,” Burnham said. “This group of kids that we have on defense now enjoy playing the game. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s a bad experience. So they’ve come together. They pull together. They encourage. They coach each other. They help each other. It’s not that, ‘You’re going to get my job if I help you understand this concept,’ or whatever it is. So I think it brings them closer together. Then when you get close together, you get your back up against the wall, you get fourth down at the 2-yard-line or whatever it might be, then you’re going to pull together and do more and give more to that play with an attitude that, ‘Hey, we’re out here as a team. We’re going to get this done.’”
Getting things done. Belief. Trust.
As for more wins, we won’t know that for at least another month, but Thomas has booked his seat on the “shock the Big 12” train.
“Most people don’t believe we’re going to do something, but we’re going to shock the Big 12,” said Thomas, who was officially added to the team today. “We are.”