Entering year three of the Matt Campbell era, the defense is there. In fact, that aspect of the Cyclones arrived in Ames a year ahead of schedule. When it comes to every statistic available, 2017 was a banner year for Jon Heacock’s defense that not only improved immensely compared to the previous season, but was trendsetting in the offensive minded Big 12.
To put you inside of Campbell’s head, Iowa State’s third-year coach feels like this defense can play multiple different schemes and still be successful. If it’s a three-man front vs. Kliff Kingsbury or a 4-3 look against the likes of an Iowa or Kansas State, with depth up front, talent at linebacker and perhaps the best one-two cornerback combination in the Big 12, Iowa State is ready to compete vs. any style of offense.
Offensively is where the Cyclones are still a work in progress. We have yet to see the finished product when it comes to the vision Matt Campbell has for Iowa State.
“I think having great balance in our offense is really critical,” Campbell said. “When I have loved where we were offensively, we have been able to put our best players in a position to be successful. When we got here, we were so decimated on the offensive line. We didn’t have tight ends. How do you get your best players the ball? It was really hard.”
Let’s use last year as our example.
Off the top of your head, it might seem like Iowa State was balanced. After all, David Montgomery proved himself to be not only one of the best runners in the Big 12, but the entire country. As a sophomore, Montgomery compiled 1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns. His average of 88.2 yards per game ranked third in the Big 12, but that alone isn’t the balance that Campbell craves.
As a team, the Cyclones ranked 117th nationally in rushing yards per game at 118.31. Iowa State was 119th nationally in percentage of total yards coming on the ground at 30.50. The Cyclones averaged only 3.59 rushing yards per attempt, good for 113th nationally and attempted only an average of 33 runs per game, 110th nationally.
“That’s why I have always said it is so critical to have a great offensive line,” Campbell said. “You want to have balance. It’s why you want to have tight ends. It doesn’t mean you will play with two or three tight ends the entire game but if we want to, we can. It creates matchups. I’m such a big matchup guy.”
Iowa State was a top 40 passing offense in most categories but overall, the offensive numbers were subpar.
This brings us back to perhaps the theme of the upcoming 2018 season. If Iowa State wants to improve upon its surprising 8-5 season from a year ago, the Cyclones have to be able to be “multiple” on offense.
“Creating matchups has to do with personnel,” Campbell said. “That’s where we have been stunted in the first two years. If it has been inefficiency at quarterback or not being good enough on the offensive line, not having tight ends, we have been limited by saying, ‘This is what we can do.’ Luckily last year we were able to do it good enough to get the ball to a guy like (Allen) Lazard, enough or enough to get it to Hakeem (Butler). Ultimately, were we doing it to the best of our ability? I think we can get better at that.”
The issue at tight end should effectively be solved starting in 2018. Chase Allen proved last year (as a freshman) that he is a Big 12 tight end. Iowa State’s coaches like two other guys as much as Allen. Dylan Soehner, a 6-foot-7, 271 pound redshirt sophomore has NFL potential. Charlie Kolar, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound redshirt freshman will be capable of giving quality time this season as well.
Thinking outside the box
Iowa State should be improved on the offensive line in 2018. But how much?
Campbell spoke at length about this topic last week at the Big 12 media days. The Cyclones likely won’t be dominant up front, but Campbell believes that he finally has enough warm bodies to move in and out to make things interesting.
“I think this is the most depth and concrete of an offensive line that we have had since I have been here,” Campbell said. “Especially getting Trevor Downing in for those 15 practices. We actually have a two-deep for the first time since I have been here. I think the thing that we have is flexibility on that offensive line. We have some really good challenges and battles to see who the starting five are but that’s a good thing.”
Even in a best case world, my guess is that this line won’t be a finished product of what Campbell envisions playing with at Iowa State.
So I asked him the following question: “Last year you often used Lanning to take away a defender. It helped that offensive line a lot in short yardage situations. Will you find a way to do something like that this year or was that simply finding a way to use a unique guy?”
“Thinning the box out last year and helping the offensive line was big,” he replied. “To me, I love to have multiple toys to make people defend a bunch of different things. Having a unique piece like a Re-al Mitchell is something we want to have.”
Mitchell, the elusive son of a Marine and American Gladiator, arrived on campus in the spring and did not disappoint. He’s only 6-foot, 192-pounds, so clearly a different type of runner than Lanning (also known as “Joel-Dozer”) was. But this idea has been talked about behind closed doors since Mitchell, already one of the fastest players on the team, signed with Iowa State.
Campbell has ideas.
Here’s a quick assessment of what on paper, Iowa State has to work with offensively in 2018.
*** The combination of Montgomery, a healthy Kene Nwangwu, Sheldon Croney, Johnnie Lang and Mike Warren, Iowa State certainly has a stable of running backs that can compete at a high level every week.
*** Hakeem Butler has the potential to be an elite wide receiver in the sport and the talent around him is undeniable. From big men like Butler and Matthew Eaton (6-6 and 6-4) to speedy, smaller slot guys like Deshaunte Jones and Tarique Milton, Iowa State has the wide receivers to create matchups on linebackers, small corners or whatever an opposing defense might through its way.
*** Iowa State feels like it is at a spot in the tight end room where it can feel comfortable lining up two up at a time if need be. The hope is that these guys will be used more in the passing game in 2018 as well.
*** There is a question to be asked about quarterback. Kyle Kempt certainly proved himself as a winner last year, but isn’t athletic enough to be any sort of a running threat. Campbell’s longterm vision of Iowa State’s quarterbacking probably includes that skillset from the signal caller, but Kempt’s intangibles are worth a lot.
This whole conversation really centers around the offensive line. In a short yardage situation, will the Cyclones be able to bully the opposition and push around a decent front-four?
Campbell simplifies his vision for offense at Iowa State quite well. Just think of it as a pizza.
“We want to attack you in a bunch of different ways,” Campbell said. “I like that. I have always said that I want the whole pizza. When we have been our best at Toledo, Mount Union and even when I was at Bowling Green, we had the whole pizza. We can do a lot of different things. We picked the best slice each week to be successful.”