Nov 26, 2016; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Kene Nwangwu (20) returns a kickoff for a touchdown as West Virginia Mountaineers safety Toyous Avery (16) chases during the first quarter at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Kempt has been in this situation before.
Unlike most of the guys on Iowa State’s 2017 football team, the Cyclones’ starting quarterback has been part of bowl game preparation. Kempt was a member of Oregon State’s 2013 team that beat Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl — and the preparation for that game gives him a strong understanding how crucial the 15 bowl practices are for the development of younger players.
“It was the first time I got a chance to run our offense,” Kempt said on Sunday after it was announced Iowa State will take on Memphis in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 30. “I think it’s very important for the young guys especially. These reps are very critical before spring ball. When you get into spring ball, you’re competing for starting spots right away. It really starts right now. I think for these guys getting these extra practices and for us having some extra time to prepare for Memphis, it’s a big deal.”
Kempt — and Iowa State’s other major contributors — have spent the first three bowl practices going through individual drills, participating in 7-on-7 and other light activities. Meanwhile, the young players who weren’t given as much of an opportunity to showcase their abilities during the regular season are getting major reps.
Guys such as Zeb Noland, Jalen Martin, O’Rien Vance, Jake Hummel and other underclassmen are getting the majority of the attention from coaches and receiving hands-on teaching that they do not get as much in the heat of the regular season.
“You wish that you would have had it growing up in the program,” senior linebacker Joel Lanning said. “It’s like another spring ball pretty much, basically. You get like 15 practices and I think it’s huge to get those guys the reps they need. It’s a long season for those guys, especially when they’re coming from places where they had a ton of success and played right away. It’s hard for some of those guys to be away from home and not come out and produce right away. So it’s good for those guys to get back out there.”
These 15 practices are critical to the process of sustaining a program rather than being a one-hit wonder. They are when game planning and preparing for another team take the backseat — at least for a few weeks — so that development and improvement can become the main focuses.
It can also be when someone who missed the entire season due to injury gets back on the football field, which is the case for sophomore running back Kene Nwangwu, who missed the 2017 season due to an Achilles injury.
“Kene Nwangwu is great to have back,” head coach Matt Campbell said. “We missed him and he’s 100 percent. Had a run today and you almost had to do a double take of who that was. There’s been a lot of those guys, but, boy, Kene’s great to have back and full go and playing football again.”
Obviously, Iowa State wants to be able to go to Memphis and win a bowl game for the first time since 2009. It would be a great source of momentum for a program that already has a lot of it heading into the 2018 offseason.
But while the game is important, it is what happens in the 15 practices leading up to it that make the biggest difference in building and sustaining a successful program.
“It’s monumental. Being part of a program where this was the norm, you knew how critical these practices and this time is,” Campbell said. “You have two objectives this time of year, number one, continue the growth of your program. Take what you’ve done, what you need to continue to do, find those margins and continue to fill those in. The second piece of it is take this team, this 2017 Cyclone team, and put a stamp on what their season looks like and what they’re about. That’s the challenge. I think there’s a recipe to it. We’ve got to find the perfect recipe and make sure we put it together to go out the right way.”