NOTEBOOK: Four new freshmen to watch, Matt Leo’s rise, Baylor’s talent

Sep 8, 2018; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Mike Rose (23) looks to tackle Iowa Hawkeyes running back Mekhi Sargent (10) at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes beat the Cyclones 13 to 3. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Two stand front and center, hard to miss, in starting roles.

Seven appear on occasion, sometimes turning heads, sometimes going unnoticed, but always making progress in limited duty.

Yes, Iowa State’s true freshman class is making an indelible mark beyond star quarterback Brock Purdy and hard-hitting MIKE linebacker Mike Rose— and more first-year players are poised to hit the field down the stretch, beginning with Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. (FS1) matchup with Baylor at Jack Trice Stadium.

“You’re almost talking about this entire freshman class,” said Cyclones coach Matt Campbell, whose team (5-3, 4-2 Big 12) rides a four-game win streak into the game against the Bears (5-4, 3-3). “I think the four that are really close are (offensive lineman) Trevor Downing — he’s had a phenomenal fall. He’s light years ahead of any freshman offensive lineman that I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach. He’s really close to helping our football team. (Offensive linemen) Joey Ramos has come in and done a really great job. Unlike Trevor, he didn’t get spring practice. I thought his progression has been really impressive. (Backup quarterback) Re-al (Mitchell), he’s dynamic, athletic and can do a lot of different things for us. His progression has been really fun to watch. 

“Those three and then Chandler Pulvermacher — another linebacker that’s done a really good job. (Linebacker) Gerry Vaughn had a little bit of playing time — he played in the first (couple) games for us at linebacker and at special teams. We have some guys who continue to develop. I’m excited to see some of these guys.”

If, indeed, those four promising true freshmen join the likes of defensive linemen Will McDonald (strip sack against TCU), Zach Petersen and Isaiah Lee — along with headliners Purdy and Rose — as rookies hitting the ground running and, um, throwing and hitting, it will augment Campbell and his staff’s reputation for rapidly developing raw, but gifted players into game-ready prospects.

“Usually, you see a lot of young guys kind of lost in the system, kind of waiting for their turn, but they’re coming into a culture where we’re instilling that the next man should always be ready,” said All-Big 12 senior cornerback Brian Peavy, who’s helped mentor true freshman Anthony Johnson as he’s also started to shine on the field. “They’re taking charge of that.”

Rose is fourth on the team in tackles with 40. Purdy, of course, has already shattered the Cyclones’ freshman single-season record in touchdown passes with 12 — and the program zenith of 20 now resides within his sights.

Johnson has seven tackles and two pass breakups and his playmaking ability at corner has allowed versatile senior defensive back D’Andre Payne to play a significant amount at safety.

“Anthony, he’s done a really good job as a true freshman, really impressed me,” said Payne, who has one interception and a forced fumble. “But he’s been that way since he came in in the summer and in fall camp. He’s done a great job for us. I look for him to set up even more than he has done. He’s a true freshman, but it’s college football. They don’t really care what you are. Senior, junior, whatever. You’re out there on the field, you’ve gotta make plays.”

Of course, the emergence of most of these guys has been both enabled and limited by the almost universally-praised new four-game maximum freshman redshirt rule, which the NCAA adopted this season.

The fact that even more program newcomers are likely to take advantage of it in the final third of the regular season — and beyond — speaks to their levels of maturity, the dogged leadership from seniors, and the developmental talent of the coaching staff.

“That’s why I like to pat the leadership team on the back and the older guys for not letting those guys venture off,” Peavy said. “Letting them know that as soon as they walk in these doors in the summer that it’s real — and we’re going to need them.”


 “We all see Matt. Matt looks like, shoot, he looks like a Greek god. He looks the part of what it looks like. One of my favorite pieces of Matt, even through our recruiting process of Matt, was there was a humility there. You see these guys and I think sometimes it’s, ‘Geez,’ the ego is, ‘I’m so ready.’ Well Matt, even through the recruiting process was humble enough to say, ‘Hey, listen. I’ve only been on the United States now two years. There’s a lot of growth for me. I understand there’s a possibility that I would redshirt.’ There’s not a lot of junior college players that are gonna have the humility to say that. So what I’ve always appreciated about Matt is there was an end goal in mind, but he knew it wasn’t a straight line to get there.”


Iowa State’s head coach lavished praise on Baylor’s high-end talent that dots a still somewhat rebuilding roster. The Bears snapped a two-game skid with a 35-31 win last week over Oklahoma State — and despite not being as dazzling statistically as some others in the league, Campbell sees highly-skilled players throughout the team.

 “The collective whole,” Campbell said. “The defensive unit has almost everybody back from a year ago. Baylor has some really talented young guys that they’ve done a great job recruiting over the last two years that they’ve started to mix in. Then, on the offensive side, I think it all centers around their quarterback (Charlie Brewer). He’s a really talented football player who has kind of gotten nicked up and dinged up in some football games. You saw his capabilities even in the fourth quarter in a really gutsy performance by him last week. I think as you look at this team collectively, it does pop off the video. I don’t look at many of the statistics because video usually tells the truth and it’s a team that would be very similar to Oklahoma and TCU in terms of skill that really pops off the video.”


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.