WILLIAMS: Emptying out my Cyclone notebook from Big 12 meetings

Jul 16, 2019; Arlington, TX, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell (middle) takes a photo with his players during Big 12 media days at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I have so many Cyclone football tidbits leftover from this week’s Big 12 media days that I feel guilty keeping them to myself. It’s time to empty out the notebook, starting with…

Matt Campbell’s roster-building vision

I love this quote from Iowa State’s head coach and I want fans to soak it in and truly understand what he is trying to do here:

“I want to have a two-deep that can start at every position on both sides of the football,” Campbell said? “Are we there yet?”

That was a response to being asked about mysteries heading into fall camp. 

More on Campbell from FOX College Football analyst and friend of Cyclone Fanatic Joel Klatt: 

“I truly believe if you just take the body of work of his career, you can make a strong argument that Matt is one of the top 10 coaches in the sport.”

On the five-man battle at running back…

I was mildly surprised when I saw a five-man battle at No. 1 to become Iowa State’s starting running back in the fall. We knew there would be competition but part of me believed that Campbell would give veterans Kene Nwangwu and Sheldon Croney the nod while letting the youngsters chase after them in August. 

“We have to figure out who they are,” Campbell said of freshmen Jirehl Brock and Breece Hall. “We have a pretty good idea about Breece. We had him in the spring and he has at least a little bit of a litmus test where Jirehl you are putting through summer workouts. It’s hard to make decisions off of summer workouts. That running back spot, you’re looking for the guy in critical moments to put into the game. Who is going to get you the yard on 3rd and 1? Who has a chance to score inside the five yardline? We knew who that guy was over the last three years and that’s what we are looking for.”

Newcomers that Campbell singled out in Dallas…

…Because this usually leads to some sort of on-field production. 

Darren Wilson, a junior college wide receiver who chose the Cyclones over West Virginia this summer. 

Two freshman defensive backs: Kym-Mani King and D.J. Miller. 

More in the secondary when it comes to depth: Tayvonn Kyle and Jaeveyon Morton. 

“There is competition at the twos. There is competition for some of the ones,” Campbell said. “I think that part of it is really big. Justin Bickham was a great addition. He’s played against high-end football players and brings confidence. Look at a guy like Richard Bowens, who has been in our program for three years now. It’s time for him to make that move instead of just being a guy, but to really help our football team be successful.”

Campbell LOVES this crop of freshmen offensive linemen…

“We feel like it is the best offensive line class we have brought in here, which is really exciting. The physical maturity that group has shown up with.”

WILLIAMS: Why Iowa State is no longer an afterthought in the Big 12

The punt team…

Last week, we reported that Iowa State punter Corey Dunn tore his Achilles Tendon in the offseason. Campbell gave his first public comments on this situation in Dallas. 

“One of the huge positives is that there was a guy there who we do feel good about,” he said in reference to walk-on Joe Rivera. “He played in the Drake game last year in a critical moment. We wish it wasn’t a critical moment but it was and he rally saved our tail last year.”

The most Matt Campbell quote ever…

“I think the best thing about our special teams in general is No. 1, the long snapper is back. That’s the most important piece of the puzzle. There is a lot of experience coming back on the punt team in general. The punt team is critical. As we found out a year ago, when it isn’t successful, it can be a game changer for you.”

Because I’m obsessed with the defensive line…

…And feel like this year’s Iowa State version can be one of the best in America, I asked about the development of Matt Leo, who is entering his senior season. 

“You saw Matt Leo in the bowl game step in and play the best football game of his career,” Campbell said. “What he was able to carry with him was that mentality and some success into the offseason, which I thought was really big. There were up and down moments when Enyi got hurt earlier in the year. Matt got thrown back in there at the end but his success in that bowl game was big and has given him a lot of confidence this offseason.”

More than a linebacker…

Campbell could not have been more complementary of senior linebacker Marcel Spears, calling him the “heartbeat of the locker room.”

“He has had the ability to engage and empower all of the people around him,” Campbell said. “He’s been what you hoped he would be. I remember having a really big conversation with Marcel after our first year here. Marcel started on special teams for us and I said, ’Is that all you got?’ You should be a guy starting in our football program and I think he took that to heart. He had a great spring in his second year at WILL linebacker and when you talk about an X-factor, he has been that in a lot of ways.”

WILLIAMS: Why Iowa State moved Will McDonald to linebacker, & why it’s so important

Speaking of Spears…

I had a nice conversation with the All-Big 12 linebacker about what it is like playing behind Ray Lima, and how the stud interior lineman makes his life easier. 

“Ray is the G.O.A.T.,” Spears told me. “He attracts so many double teams. When he is attracting double teams, he is keeping us clean. We don’t want to take on big 300-pounders all of the time but he is doing it all of the time against two of them.”

Spears continued to explain the selflessness that Lima brings to the field every day. 

“He’s the perfect guy for it. He is always worried about what others need. He never thinks about himself. Forget football player, he is a great man.”

And on the newest member of Iowa State’s linebackers room, Will McDonald?

“He’s a freak. He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s powerful,” Spears said. “He brings a lot to the table. He is very long and fast. We are trying to figure out where he belongs right now but we’ll have more information after fall camp when the season comes.”

Matt Campbell’s take on the transfer portal…

…Since everyone seems to be talking about this…

“It’s really had zero effect on us,” Iowa State’s head man told me. “To me, the transfer portal is one of those things where we talk about student athlete welfare, which I think is one of those things that ultimately what our job is. Sometimes we forget about that as coaches. But the fact of the matter is that the identity of it is that if your culture is not right, then I think you are fearful of something like the transfer portal. To me, it doesn’t bother me. The only partial red flag is you don’t want a young man where the first time adversity hits, he runs to that. But I really don’t think I have seen that. From our end of it, it hasn’t been a distraction or an issue.”

Matt Campbell on expectations…

…Iowa State being picked to finish third in the Big 12 with a very real chance of starting the season in the top 25…

“It’s really simple from my end of it. If we listened to the outside world the first three years we would have crumbled a long time ago. We don’t put any stock into what the outside world says. Nothing has been greater than what is said inside of our walls. I don’t mean that to be negative. I just mean that we have never really cared what anybody says outside of our program and we just have to focus on the inside of our walls.”

And finally…

I asked a nationally respected writer and broadcaster, Bruce Feldman from FOX and The Athletic what he thought about Campbell electing to stay at Iowa State in the offseason. 

“I’m not surprised he stayed because now he’s building something,” Feldman said. “He’s got a quarterback that he’s going to have for a few years. That’s the key piece. Guys know what he is about. He is a big substance guy. I’m not at all surprised that he stayed.”