Sep 8, 2018; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell watches his team play against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Defensive end Will McDonald has pounced for a strip-sack. Defensive tackle Isaiah Lee’s seen productive snaps in pivotal moments. Anthony Johnson’s shined in brief duty in the secondary, Mike Rose is the starting middle linebacker, and, well, quarterback Brock Purdy’s made an indelible impression.
The common thread for all these promising Iowa State football players? They’re true freshmen, of course — and some are clearly thriving in likely burned-redshirt mode, while others are being watched closely, deployed carefully, and somewhat of a happy in-game management issue.
In essence: the new NCAA rule that allows true freshmen to play in up to four games without losing their redshirt capacity has been mostly a boon for the Cyclones (3-3,2-2), but it’s also added a layer of logistics heading into Saturday’s 11 a.m. Big 12 matchup with Texas Tech (5-2, 3-1) at Jack Trice Stadium.
“It’s one of those things that we’ve probably used more guys earlier than we thought we would,” said ISU coach Matt Campbell, whose team is a 3.5-point favorite against the No. 24 Red Raiders. “But that’s certainly a positive because they’ve earned the right to play. Now, we have to be really smart as we go into the last half of it in terms of how do we use some of these guys? Do we want to continue to play them? Do they need to continue to play for us to be the best version of ourselves, or do we not? We’ve talked a lot about that over the last couple of days with some guys who are in that position now where we have to be really smart with what we do.”
Outside of Purdy, true freshmen’s impact on the Cyclones’ fortunes have been most prevalent on defense.
McDonald, a 6-4, 220-pound bundle of potential, produced a dramatic strip-sack at TCU. Lee’s been solid in relief on ISU’s defensive interior. Johnson is rangy, yet fast, at cornerback, standing six-feet tall and providing some deep ball defense in major moments.
There’s more, but there’s also less — in terms of ego, a lack of which allows younger players to burst into starting, or supporting roles for ISU.
“It’s huge and a lot of it goes back to Campbell — who he recruits,” ISU’s leading tackler and JUCO transfer Greg Eisworth said. “That was one thing he preached to me about, is, ‘We recruit guys that don’t have egos, that have the right attitudes and want to come in here and work,’ and it’s so true. When I got here and I saw the team, and the freshman class coming in, the way that they work, it’s awesome.”
There’s physical maturity and then there’s mental maturity.
Some (Purdy, for instance) possess it at a young age. Most grow into it in terms of the total package.
But the Cyclones’ staff has found a way to identify it, nurture it, and establish it for newbies, which impresses both young and old within the program.
“They’re definitely a step ahead of me when I was a true freshman,” said ISU defensive tackle Jamahl Johnson, who has come into his own on and off the field over the past 11 months. “Just being ready for Big 12 football, you know what I mean? Those guys just came along and I would say the help from me, Ray (Lima) and JaQuan (Bailey) — we’ve been there and done that. It’s just pounding that into their heads that, ‘Hey, it’s not gonna be sweet when you go out there. You’ve got to be ready.’ I feel like they really bought into that and it helped them out in the long run.”
The Cyclones now start six true or redshirt freshmen with regularity. Many more are sprinkled in as situations dictate. The challenge going forward hinges on who to keep within that four-game window (thus preserving the redshirt) and who must play beyond that for the team to maximize its potential.
“I think you are always navigating where you’re at in what game and who’s left and what you’ve got,” ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “And you’re kind of tabulating, ‘Should we, shouldn’t we? They’ve got four, who do we need? Who’s banged up?’ So I think you’re constantly doing that. I know coach Campbell, he manages that — he and coach (Aaron) Hillmann — and they do a great job. We just constantly are sorting through it and it’s constant discussion. We don’t wait — it’s the one thing I appreciate with coach — we’re trying to stay ahead of everybody and where we’re going with it and who may be available and who may not be available.”
How the second half of the season plays out will likely determine how much we’ll see of true freshman as the stretch run looms.
Regardless, it will serve as a portend of what should come — and, strategically, provide veterans with much-needed relief, here and there.
“I think it’s great for the kids and I think it helps our older players, I think, those seniors, who might get banged up,” Heacock said. “All of a sudden, a guy can help and fill in and help our team. Their season isn’t maybe washed away because a guy or two got hurt. I think it’s just huge for team football. I think it allows those young kids to get a little bit of what it’s really like, if they deserve the right to do that.”
They do, but whether it’s four games or a full season, their impact will be felt for years to come.
“All of them, they’ve been working pretty hard,” junior linebacker Marcel Spears, Jr., said. “Mike, Brock, as y’all can see — we all have different pieces we can put in this week, but, yeah, I’m impressed with all of them. All their dedication and the time that they put into their craft.”