AMES — Sam Richardson noticed the positive development.
The burly guys who protect ISU’s senior quarterback — the often-banged up guys who are also tasked with opening holes for a long-struggling running game — seemed to be operating in a unified manner in fall camp.
“It’s definitely a lot smoother and a lot of guys who played the last season, so it’s just a lot smoother,” Richardson said last week. “You could say that.”
That’s saying a lot for a unit defined more by injuries than anything else the past two seasons.
And word out of Saturday night’s final fall camp scrimmage is that the offensive line is ahead of last year. It has to be if the Cyclones want to nurture any hopes of reversing the trend established by a 3-9 mark in 2013 and a 2-10 record in 2014.
There’s at least a small measure of depth at O-line, with rotations emerging at both guard and tackle.
There’s a growing sense of confidence, as five of the Cyclones’ nine players with 10 or more career starts populate the point of attack.
“Vast improvement,” offensive coordinator Mark Mangino said after Saturday’s weather-altered scrimmage. “We’ve got some veteran guys and some young guys there that we’re blending together. It’s not where I want it to be yet, but it’s getting there. I think we’re farther ahead than we were last year at this time.”
Junior guard Daniel Burton, who played severely banged up last season, appears to be the standard-bearer at the position. He owns the most career starts at 20, including, somehow, all 12 games a year ago.
“He’s very mature as we all know and being a fourth-year guy, he’s very serious about this football team and his responsibilities,” Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads said. “I think I’ve mentioned that we’re getting him to take some snaps — not playing center, but taking snaps, just in case something would happen and we’d have a route we could go with (No. 2 center) Patrick (Scoggins) being down.”
Burton said on media day execution has become second nature now that everyone’s fully attuned to offensive line coach Brandon Blaney’s schemes, terminology and sticking points.
“Just already knowing coach Blaney’s style and Mangino’s style — how they want things done and what they expect — that can help us save a lot of time and just get straight into getting better and getting ready," Burton said.
Tackle Brock Dagel echoed Burton’s sentiments.
“We can just kind of look around at each other and just nod our heads,” the often-injured, but now-healthy senior from Cherokee said. “OK, we know what we need to do and we know how to get it done.”
There are caveats with regard to the planned O-line renaissance.
For one, the aforementioned depth is superficial. Another experienced body or two that could shore up three-man rotations would add another welcomed layer of it.
And injuries can’t be completely avoided. Yes, ISU has suffered more than its share the past two seasons, but they will strike each and every season to some extent and the key as two-a-days dip into once-a-days is to minimize the exposure to unnecessary risks in advance of the Sept. 5 season opener against Northern Iowa.
“Healthy is relative,” Rhoads said. “They’re all nicked up and we’re not very deep. As I’ve said, we have three tackles and three guards and with Patrick down, we’ve got one proven center. (Backup) Nick Severs is doing a nice job in practice and coming along. If he gets forced into action he gets forced into action. With that those guys are getting a lot of reps and I think they’re probably thrilled that camp’s done and we get to go into single days right now.
"But grades, with those guys, have been higher than they’ve ever been. I was sitting on the sideline talking to somebody yesterday and they were asking me about, What do you like watching in practice?’ And the thing I learn the most from is that O-line group and watching Brandon in his second year of coaching them and seeing them starting to execute all the things from pass protection to combo blocks, to one-on-one drive blocks. I would probably say the O-line has advanced as a group as much as any position group throughout training camp.”
By any measure, that’s good to hear.
We’re a very tight-knit group," Dagel said.
*** Rhoads said there wasn’t a clear winner to Saturday night’s scrimmage, which was a "thud-type" affair.
"It’s hard to really gauge the overall winner and loser when you’re not tackling,” Rhoads noted.
Lighting forced the team from the Jack Trice Stadium turf and into the Bergstrom Football Complex early on.
"The fact that we had to go indoors, kind of gives me a downer," Rhoads said. "I’d have loved to have been in the stadium the whole night. We got a chance to get all our special teams in, basically, and some good catching and play calling before the lightning came and we had to move indoors. Part of it was the work we had to get done and part of it was the work we wanted to get done in Jack Trice with the stadium being expanded and new and the ribbon boards and so forth, but I think we got enough of that and we’ll get another day of that next week on a practice day. We got inside and got physical. Got the number of plays we wanted to run and stayed 100 percent healthy as a football team tonight, so that’s very pleasing."
*** Mangino raved about tight end Ben Boesen, a former walk-on from West Des Moines Dowling Catholic.
"Benny Boesen, he’s had his best camp since he’s been here," Mangino said. "He’s had one of the best camps of the kids on offense. He’s improved himself in every way in the offseason. He’s stronger. He’s quicker. He controls his body better. He’s caught balls until his hands turn blue. Right now, he’s been one of the most dependable tight ends that we have catching the football. But Justin Chandler is a guy that’s coming on strong. He’s athletic. He’s a big target. He knows how to run routes. Sometimes because he’s relatively new he makes a mistake here and there, but he cares and he works at it. I think the tight end position for us will end up being a really solid position and end up being a key position for us the way we’re formationing.”
Rhoads said Chandler and fellow reserve Cole Anderson weren’t able to scrimmage becuase of minor injuries.
"Nothing serious," he added.