Nov 10, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones offensive lineman Josh Knipfel (66) blocks for wide receiver Deshaunte Jones (8) during their game with the Baylor Bears at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones beat the Bears 28-14. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Earlier this week when Athlon released its 2019 College Football Preview magazine, Iowa State’s defensive line sat atop the Big 12 unit rankings.
Matt Campbell and his staff’s ability to turn what has long been considered one of the program’s biggest weaknesses into its biggest strength is arguably the most stunning part of this two-season turnaround that has featured back-to-back eight-win seasons for the first time since Earle Bruce led the Cyclones to three-straight between 1976 and 1978.
While that transformation on the defensive front happened seemingly overnight, it has taken more time for the other side of the trenches to make strides. But, the improvement of that defensive line – led by Athlon preseason first-team All-Big 12 honorees JaQuan Bailey and Ray Lima – could be the thing that helps push the Cyclones’ offensive line to a whole new level in year four of the Campbell era.
“I think you even saw that last year. I think their growth a year ago happened because of how confident that d-line was going into fall camp last year,” Campbell said during a stop on the Tailgate Tour in Marshalltown on Wednesday. “They had to go against that d-line. When you’ve had a redshirt freshman like Collin Newell trying to snap the ball and block Ray Lima, that’s hard. It was hard until about halfway through the season then, all of a sudden, you saw him gaining confidence.”
The outlook for Iowa State’s offensive line is as good as its been in recent memory entering 2019. The group was rated No. 5 in the Big 12 by Athlon, largely due to the return of all five starters from last season, including the aforementioned Newell, plus preseason second-team All-Big 12 guard Josh Knipfel and third-team tackle Julian Good-Jones.
Only 13 teams – or 10 percent of teams in the FBS – return all five starting offensive linemen from last season. Only four of those 13 teams play in Power 5 conferences – Auburn, Oregon, Michigan State and the Cyclones.
That puts the Cyclones in high-level company with all three of those other teams rated inside Athlon’s preseason top-20. Iowa State comes in at No. 24.
Even more notably, all of those teams feature high-level – or even elite – defensive lines. Athlon considers Auburn’s defensive front the best in the country. Michigan State’s comes in at No. 6 nationally and No. 2 in the Big Ten. Oregon’s is fourth in the Pac-12, but it has greatly improved from the days of Chip Kelly when the program’s defense was sometimes considered an afterthought.
The saying iron sharpens iron is cliche, but when it comes to the trenches in college football it is proving to be true. For the first time in a long time, it could even start to prove true in Ames, Iowa.
“When you go against that every day, it demands you to rise to that level,” Campbell said. “I think that’s a huge, huge piece of our program trying to go forward. Those two areas always having really talented players and always fostering the best of each other. We had that at Toledo at a really high rate by the time we left. I think that’s something that we’ve worked really hard to get to that point and right now you finally feel confident that’s what you’ll see every day when you go out to practice.”