NOTEBOOK: O-Line working out “kinks” as search for a top five continues

Sep 8, 2018; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones offensive lineman Josh Knipfel (66) blocks for Iowa State Cyclones running back David Montgomery (32) in their game with the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes beat the Cyclones 13 to 3. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

 AMES — Iowa State coach Matt Campbell indicated before this season started that the quest to find the best five guys to start on the offensive line could stretch well beyond week one.

That’s what’s happening — especially after that group struggled mightily in the Cyclones’ 13-3 season-opening loss at Iowa.

The in-house, on-field competition is fierce, but the growth will likely be incremental — as is typically the case on the O-line. 

“I think that’s one of those things for us, that every practice is getting evaluated as if it’s game day right now,” said Campbell, whose Cyclones are 17.5-point underdogs against Oklahoma in Saturday’s 11 a.m. ABC-televised Big 12 opener at Jack Trice Stadium. “I think a lot of that is trying to settle in on what exactly is the right fit for that group. I think that will be consistent, but once we know, we know, and we’ll continue to build and grow with it. I do think it is a positive, though. I think we have capable guys, just their growth — they need the reps, they need to play under the lights and they need to make mistakes. That’s the only way to be a good offensive lineman is to grow that way. Sometimes that’s painful to deal with, but I think it also will benefit us in the long run, for sure.”

So has the opportunity to actually dissect game video, which ISU’s offensive linemen lacked after the planned season-opener against South Dakota State was canceled because of persistent stormy weather.

“I think we just found ourselves having some troubles, having some kinks that we had to work out and not having that first game, I think — we didn’t have that opportunity to work out those kinks,” Cyclones right tackle Bryce Meeker said.

Those “kinks” can’t be nearly as pronounced against the always-athletic Sooners, who flash multiple looks and packages at opposing offenses. Oklahoma (2-0) has struck for nine sacks in blowout home wins over Florida Atlantic and UCLA.

ISU surrendered four sacks to Iowa’s powerful front four last weekend and also failed to carve out any running room for star tailback David Montgomery, who carried 17 times for 44 yards — his lowest total in a full game since eking out 34 last September in a 17-7 loss to Texas.

“We had newbies playing in there and they played well, but at the same time, you have to get reps with them and I think that’s what the Iowa game helped with,” Meeker said. “I think we’ll see it on film, where we just need to be in rhythm more and I think it will show.”

Campbell praised the play of the interior of his offensive line against the Hawkeyes. Now the other guys must catch up.

“I thought maybe that’s the best we’ve played inside since we’ve been (here),” Campbell said. “(Guard) Josh Knipfel, I think his growth has been outstanding. I thought (guard Josh) Mueller played really good in that football game, comparable to maybe even where we were the last two years. It’s a matter of shoring that whole thing up and then continuing to find ways to create space. David’s a guy that, spacially, is outstanding and we’ve got to continue to find ways to do it. We threw him the ball a couple different ways in that game but we’ve got to continue to find different ways to get him the ball specially to allow some of those run lanes to open up.”

First, they’ve got to settle on a top five. That may or may not be a different quintet of big guys against Oklahoma — and whether or not it is could reflect on how spirited that internal competition remains.

“I certainly don’t want to limit anybody and making a one-game snapshot, I think, is unfair, but I do think there’s been a lot of practice from spring to fall camp to continue to make great evaluations of where we’re at and what we’re doing,” Campbell said. “The nice thing is that we do feel confident that some of these guys can go in and play. (Center) Colin (Newell’s) certainly a guy that hindsight 20-20, would we have loved to get (him) in the game to play some more? I think, sure, absolutely. And I think, as a coach. you’re always like, ‘What could we have done better and how could we have done it better?’ But I think we’ll evaluate practice this week and make great decisions for us and continue to move ourselves forward.”

So stay tuned. Progress isn’t a given, but it’s fully expected to materialize upfront this week and beyond.

 “I think having it on film now is going to help a lot where we’ll know where our kinks are and well be able to fix them,” Meeker said.


 ***** Right defensive end Enyi Uwazurike continued his rise from player to playmaker in the Iowa loss. The 6-6, 283-pound sophomore from Detroit posted a career-high five tackles against the Hawekeyes and blends mobility and strength with keen awareness. 

“I think size, length and power. His game on Saturday was really fun to watch, to be honest with you,” Campbell said. “You saw him really grow up and make that transition. I thought him and JaQuan (Bailey) comparable to where they were a year ago — one being a redshirt freshman a year ago, JaQuan being a sophomore, but second-year players to third-year players, you’re talking about a big difference and I thought both those guys showcased what they could do. But I thought Enyi, size, length, and get off, really impressive and I think he does a great job at the point of attack, which is huge for us.”

 ***** Speaking of the D-line, backup end Matt Leo recorded his first two career tackles against Iowa — and looked good doing it. His development dovetails nicely with that of the D-line in general, which is begging to boast the type of depth Campbell and Co. want and need at the position.

“I think that is, again, where we weren’t a year ago, and where we were this past Saturday was the ability to play multiples” Campbell said. “In a lot of areas we’re getting a lot closer to where we want to be. The defensive line’s one of them. I thought Matt Leo played a really good game. Pressure on the quarterback. Big-time situation, made a play on the cutback. I thought Jamahl Johnson continues to play really good football for us. Spencer Benton — and you didn’t even get to some of those other names in that game on Saturday, which is a good thing. But I thought what you saw allowed everybody to stay fresh and in a game like you’re gonna play this Saturday, where they’re gonna try to run a million plays and it’s gonna be warm, I think that will hopefully show us where we’re really at in terms of depth and how that can really anchor in and help our football team.”

 ***** It remains uncertain if quarterback Kyle Kempt will be healthy enough to start against the Sooners, but Campbell’s confident backup Zeb Noland can fill in admirably, if necessary.

Who would be the new (if short-term) No. 2, though? Stay tuned on that, as well.

 “I’m really anxious to watch if Kyle isn’t able to go by Wednesday, who will be getting those second-team reps and how does that sort itself out through this week,” Campbell said before declining to give an initial edge to either Re-Al Mitchell, Brock Purdy or Devon Moore.


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.