Dec 28, 2019; Orlando, Florida, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell runs out with teammates prior to the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Recruiting for 2020 has officially come to a close and Iowa State has again pulled in a talented class of youngsters. Iowa State’s recruiting profile has been increased each year of the Matt Campbell era. The 2020 season is the first of the Matt Campbell era that will sport a roster almost entirely composed of players acquired via the efforts of the current regime (with Landen Akers being the only exception as a Paul Rhoads recruit who arrived as a gray shirt shortly after Campbell’s hiring). It is interesting that so many schools are willing to jettison coaches after 2 or 3 years when a full evaluation of a coaches abilities may not manifest until year 5.
While 2019 was marred by injury limitations and talent deficiencies in certain key depth positions, Iowa State was a young team and remains such in 2020. However, there is experience to balance the youth and the youth is far more talented than Iowa State has seen in the past. The key to its effective utilization will be the development of the talent and its deployment within Iowa State’s chosen schemes.
Below, I provide an analysis of the film available of the recruits in the 2020 class. In addition, I am endeavoring to provide a rough analysis of roster talent and implications for the upcoming season. Development parameters are in flux with the introduction of a new strength and conditioning staff, however, there is a reasonable expectation that improvement will occur with the changes.
2020 Recruiting Class
In my analysis, I ignore the rating system. Instead, I am focused on the physical traits and fundamental skills of the players that can be gleaned from highlight films that are available. Attitude and mentality can be derived from the style of play and highlight choices. In addition, viewing the roster positionally, each player has a different level of importance to the roster talent evaluation based on returning talent profiles and my former assessments of those players.
Based on that, I have placed the class in tiers based on the analysis of the player’s ability and importance on the roster.
Tier 1 players are going to be relied on in their first or second year to provide quality play on the field and have the ability to do so. In addition, they are the players I believe are the best players with the highest ceilings in the class. Again, note that no regard is given to their rankings, but instead it is based on skill analysis and roster importance.
TJ TAMPA – Coolest name in the class. Mr. Tampa is my No. 1 rated player in the class. He received a call from the head coach at playoff contender Georgia the night before the early signing date but chose Iowa State a couple of days later. There is a reason he received that call. Tampa has “the juice.” He absorbs the ball with his hands and transitions seamlessly into gaining yards after the catch. He uses his speed smartly by throttling back and then exploding to top speed within two steps. His route running ability is well developed. A playmaker. He would start 52 games in his career for me. The roster, though full of wide receivers, requires playmakers and Tampa represents that skill set in this class.
WILLIS SINGLETON – A 300-pound interior defensive lineman who has played every position on the defensive line effectively. He has D-gap to D-gap speed like Jamahl Johnson (means he can run down the line to make a play outside of the tackles from the 0 or 1 technique). High motor and natural leverage player that keeps his hips low and extends his hands to get off blocks. ISU has a massive need in the interior defensive line with the loss of Ray Lima and Johnson. Singleton may redshirt, but will likely be in the mix for significant playing time in year one or two in Ames. I could watch his highlights all day long. He is my second-ranked player in the class.
XAVIER HUTCHINSON – The JUCO wide receiver from Blinn College in College Station, Texas is a polished Power 5 wide receiver. I would like to see him catch the ball with extended hands on a more frequent basis, but he is sure-handed nonetheless. His speed is not top end, but his feet and agility are top level. He is big and tough and should move into a possession receiver role in 2020. He needs to as the losses of La’Michael Pettway and Deshaunte Jones create a production gap for the roster as a whole. He needs to be what I think he is for this team and he shows the ability to deliver. He is my No. 3 player in this class.
COLE PEDERSEN – The Iowa product is my No. 5 ranked player in this class. He is fast, tough, determined, and shows excellent football instincts. Physical and aggressive and though he plays too high, has the ability to sink his hips and can develop a low game similar to Mike Rose. There is time and talent available on the roster to allow him to redshirt, but he is the next outstanding linebacker to enter the Iowa State program.
MICHAL ANTOINE – Corner out of Florida who displays excellent press and man coverage ability applied with outstanding aggression and a killer instinct. Big hitter with a thick build for a corner and well-coached in deep coverage. He has long arms and smart feet. He literally attempts to dominate his man first and pursues with bad intentions when the play is away. Similar to Anthony Johnson. Iowa State must develop physical corners who can play man and tackle in space. This was a deficiency in 2019, but Antoine upgrades the position and fits what is needed. He is my sixth rated player in the class but holds an important developmental position for the future as the only corner in this class.
LATRELL BANKSTON – The JUCO defensive tackle has been deemed the heir to Ray Lima. His attitude is outstanding and I believe he wants to be that man. Iowa State’s thin defensive interior requires him to be that man. Yet, he is only my 11th rated player in this class. Bankston has tackle to tackle coverage ability and showed an excellent ability to shed blocks with his hands at the JUCO level. His feet are solid and he has a power step and ability to drop his hips with movement that is solid. He plays too high to maintain his effectiveness. I am concerned that he likes to jump gaps instead of holding and reading as required in his position. He makes solid reads but can be exploited in the Big 12 if he cannot develop discipline this spring.
Tier 2 players have some time to develop based on the roster construction and display a need to capitalize on that development. However, they have the potential to realize that ceiling and become major contributors for multiple years in this program.
HUNTER DEKKERS – The prolific Iowa quarterback and Elite 11 participant should emerge as the No. 2 quarterback in the fall. He ranks 4th in my ranking of this year’s class. He has enough mobility to escape the pocket and be a factor in the running game, though a half step down from incumbent Brock Purdy’s mobility level. He displays a tremendous feel for the required throws and assesses the field quickly. His arm strength is not elite, but there are no limitations in the route tree he can throw. He knows how to produce and is mature enough to check down and complete passes at a high percentage. He may be the future at quarterback and I like his game better than I liked Purdy’s at this point in his career.
TYLER MILLER – The gigantic tackle from small-town Iowa has game. His feet are borderline special considering his size which allows him to be a barrier that pushes defenders outside their lanes just to try to get around him. He is a single level blocker who won’t climb to the second level well, but he will be very effective at the first level and in pass pro. He has time to solidify his body and continue to develop his feet and hips and should develop into a multi-year starter on the offensive line. He is my 7th ranked player in this class.
HAYDEN PAULS – Good feet, ability to drop his hips at contact, nasty demeanor, consistently in a winning leverage position. The 8th ranked member of the class has tools that are raw, but there is evidence of a very solid interior lineman. He needs to add 30 pounds before seeing time on the field, but his hand placement and footwork indicate there is a future ahead for Mr. Pauls.
AIDAN BOUMAN – Bouman’s only limitation is his athletic ability. He is a true pocket passer who will not avoid pressure with mobility. Though he can roll and slide in the pocket, he is a stand and sling QB. He brings a high football IQ and was well drilled in high school to make all the throws. His highlight reel is a work of art as it shows him throwing the entire route tree accurately and on time. He is mature beyond his years and I would not be surprised if he is the QB that emerges from this class.
CRAIG MCDONALD – Iowa State needs to find a safety. In fact, it needs to find three on the current roster and in this class in order to maintain its effectiveness against the pass. D.J. Miller shows promise. McDonald is the best bet to be the man in this class which sports at least three safeties. McDonald is versatile and best classified as an instinctive football player. That type of athlete typically translates well to a safety position. My notes on the 9th rated player in the class repeat the phrase – just a football player. That is the best start and if his speed translates, you will see McDonald on the field sooner than later.
DaSHAYNE JAMES – James is a gray shirt from the previous class who matriculates into this season’s class. He is a possession receiver who needs work exploding out of his cuts. He is a long strider with deceptive speed but catches the ball all over the field. He is a physical blocker which is a key in the Iowa State scheme and gives him a chance to make an early impact and elevate in the wide receiver room.
Tier 3 has two entrants. The tier is intended to reflect a prospect that has a solid, higher tier skill set, but is limited in some regard. The skills displayed are above those in the developmental tier below, but finding a place to play may prove difficult.
AR’QUEL SMITH – One gets excited when watching Smith’s film. He is instinctive, patient, and explosive as a defender. He is listed as a linebacker, however, where his size places him in Tier 3. He is under 6 feet tall and weighs 200 to 210 pounds. He plays bigger, but that is too small to play linebacker effectively in the Big 12. He shows enough speed to potentially translate into a safety role which may be his path. Gerry Vaughn is a similar player who has seen action in his first two years at ISU but is without a clear path to starting position. Vaughn and Smith are the same – good football players without ideal size/speed fits inside the defense. Two of the last three classes have this player type. The staff would be wise to find a fit for these players’ skill sets, though it is less than apparent where that will be.
DAE’SHAWN DAVIS – Davis is a gray shirt that was in the 2019 class, but is matriculating into the 2020 class. He is a versatile athlete with good (and needed) size for a running back, but far less than ideal size for a linebacker, which is where he is listed. Given the lack of a running back in this class and the lack of a power back on the roster, I personally would add Davis to the running back room. However, his instincts are solid on both sides of the ball. He is a good athlete without a clear positional fit outside of being an outstanding special teams contributor. His talent level is Big 12 worthy and if ISU can find a role for him, he should be a contributor in his career.
The developmental tier is not meant to be derogatory towards these prospects. Instead, it indicates that there are either physical traits or techniques that must be added before the player will challenge for time on the field. Any of these players could develop and be valuable contributors, but there is a path they must take in order to increase their ceiling in my opinion. It is absolutely fair to say that every signee fits this tier. I would have placed Marcel Spears, Jr. in this tier in his class. He worked hard, polished his game and became a consistent all-conference player.
JORDYN MORGAN – Unfortunately, I could not find any video for the Texas safety. Therefore, I have no choice but to place him here. Given Iowa State’s need for quality safeties, it is my hope that he proves to be worthy of a higher status.
MASON CHAMBERS – Chambers is a forward playing safety who excels in run support and as an enforcer in the secondary. However, his coverage skills are hard to ascertain and are likely underdeveloped. He reminds me of Kamari Cotton-Moya who was excellent as a box defender but was a significant liability in coverage. His path is to develop his coverage skills to a level where his run support can be utilized on the field.
JOHNNY WILSON – A big defensive end weighing in at 260 as he comes to campus this spring. He is not explosive for an end and is unlikely to provide a pass rush threat from the edge. His instincts are solid however and he is solid making plays in traffic. I believe his path is to add 25 to 30 pounds and move inside where his athleticism becomes starter caliber. Wilson would occupy a higher tier if I was evaluating him as a three-technique tackle. He reminds me of Tucker Robertson who came in at 260 and will be a regular rotation player on the interior at 290 in the 2020 season.
DANIEL JACKSON – Daniel Jackson is a big wide receiver from a big-time program in Texas. He was productive and is well-coached. He is sharp out of his cuts but lacks explosiveness and he is not a natural hands catcher away from his body. If he can develop his blocking skill, given his size, he can be a solid contributor on the outside.
HUNTER ZENZEN – This is an aggressive player whose effort stands out on film. He has a good frame but lacks some athleticism in pursuit and coverage at linebacker. That said, I believe he has a future at the “F” back position. He reminds me of Sam Seonbuchner who came in as an outside linebacker and left as an incredibly proficient F back. Zenzen could be a better receiver than Seonbuchner. I believe that is his path and it is a critical one for Iowa State.
AIDAN BITTER – Think Landen Akers here. A raw athlete with high-level athleticism who needs polish in his football IQ. With patience and work, Bitter can fill a situational role on the field. I would be curious to test his return game skills. He needs work but has a solid physical base on which to build.
SAM RENGERT/BRADY PETERSON – These two offensive linemen had very solid prep careers. Both have a solid base but need to add strength to become viable contenders on the offensive line. Both have a tendency to lean into their blocks using a size advantage versus a true striking ability from a power position to eliminate defenders. Both, play too high but show an ability to improve and lower their hips with coaching. Both will need to put in work to see the field, but, again, there is a base level that indicates they can be developed into Big 12 lineman.
ANTHONY SMITH – A brand new addition. The Florida offensive lineman is a little light at 270 meaning he falls into the developmental tier, however, do not be deterred by his composite rating, if he was 20 pounds heavier I would have him squarely in Tier 2. He exhibits a nasty demeanor and bends defenders over from a solid wide power base upon contact and a strong drive to finish the block. Quick feet and very athletic with some of the best hands and arm extension I have viewed from an Iowa State offensive line signing. He is athletic enough to play across the line and to be an effective interior defensive lineman. Given the roster needs, defensive tackle could be his home. The staff has shown a penchant for bringing in a late target with solid skills like Tarique Milton. I will be excited to watch and listen for signs of this player’s development.
Special Teams Tier
Reserved for special teams players whose contribution will be reserved to those 30 plays a game. Iowa State has major needs in both of these positions which makes it vital that these two athletes develop quickly and live up to the scholarship used.
BEN SAULS (k) – He has made a lot of kicks from distance. He looks like a Big 12 kicker. So did Brayden Narveson. Kickers are, well, kickers, and confidence and mental make-up are as important as the physical traits. We will see. Iowa State needs Sauls to come along in his second year as having a reliable kicking game can make the difference in the close games in which Iowa State will continue to find itself.
KOBY HATHCOCK (ls) – Perhaps Hathcock should have been rated as my No. 1 most important recruit. Steve Wirtel never missed a snap. He is gone. Hathcock will be the odds on favorite to take over the position of long snapper. It is my hope and expectation that we will never mention the long snapper for the next four years. Instead, we will be nervous in 2024 about who will replace Hathcock like we are nervous about who will replace Wirtel.
Now, let’s take a quick summary look at the strength and weaknesses of the 2020 Iowa State roster.
Positions of Strength
The running back room looks very strong with a slight weakness.
Breece Hall is a runner and receiver. Iowa State would be wise to expand the running back’s influence in the passing game. With questions at WR, the RB in the passing game can be a very effective alternative that is a foil to the current defensive trends in the league.
Jirehl Brock is a good player. He is a violent runner and will emerge in my opinion next season. Kene Nwangwu and Johnnie Lang have solid skill sets and provide quality depth should there be usage and injury concerns. The RB room is more balanced and set going into the 2020 season and should increase its production.
The slight weakness is the lack of a power back with size and short-yardage intent. Perhaps a position change will bring this element to the room, but the offense would feel more complete with the presence of a bigger, more physical back.
I probably don’t need to mention the TE position. It should be the focal point of the offense and aids an uncertain offensive line, in the same manner, it did in 2019. Kolar, Allen, and Soehner are likely to expand their roles and effectiveness.
I want to mention Skylar Loving-Black. His film is as impressive as any player on the roster. He is as effective a blocker as Allen and as good a receiver as Kolar. I expect to see him as an alternative weapon at the F position and in TE wide packages. He is fast and makes contested catches routinely. I don’t see how he does not become an offensive weapon in 2020.
The Defensive End room is stocked. Enyi Uwazurike provides versatility and depth to a weak interior line group, Zach Peterson is a fundamental stalwart, and JaQuan Bailey has an opportunity to open a can on the Big 12. Depth is provided by pass-rush specialist Will McDonald, praised prospect Corey Suttle, and a talented prospect in Blake Peterson who may emerge as an impactful player in his second year. These six players provide excellent versatility across the defensive end positions and an expectation that 4 down could be an effective pivot for the defense.
Finally, the defensive backs are again a strength of the roster. Eisworth and White (most improved player) are aces at safety, Johnson’s progression toward the end of the season portends of an impact player, and Tayvonn Kyle has a high ceiling. There are two more positions to be filled and Kym Mani-King and D.J. Miller are the favorites to do so. However, Arnold Azunna, Richard Bowens, Keontae Jones, Datrone Young, and Isheem Young have the ability to develop into solid contributors and depth players. Numbers and talent are plentiful here and that is a good sign for 2020.
Excellent Top – Questionable Depth
Let’s start at quarterback and hope we have a healthy season from Brock Purdy instead of perhaps the greatest season by an injured quarterback in football history. If Purdy is healthy, then Iowa State will be led by one of the most dynamic playmakers in the Big 12. It is hard to imagine a better scenario than having a record-breaking QB with two more years of eligibility.
That said, ISU is looking at a true freshman backup and I have heard no rumors of bringing in a transfer to fill that position. I believe that and the transfer of Re’al Mitchell indicates that the staff is comfortable with the two recruits mentioned above. I agree. The depth is questionable but talented.
Linebacker is an interesting and challenging position for Iowa State. The group has thrived in the defensive scheme and boasts talented players. O’Rien Vance lost his effectiveness after his concussion against West Virginia and must take a step forward in his read and fit game for 2020. Jake Hummel should finally get his chance to shine and I believe he will be very effective in doing so.
The depth is young and inexperienced. ISU will have Gerry Vaughn, Chandler Pulvermacher, and Aric Horne in the depth positions. All three have excellent abilities. I love Vaughn and Horne and the staff likes Pulvermacher. I would not be surprised to see Cole Pedersen occupy a depth position in the case of injury, but even though the depth is talented, there will be a learning curve for them.
Quarterback and the quarterbacks of the defense have excellent front line talent that should help the team win. Injuries can expose talented, but inexperienced players that may be an initial liability should they be called on too much, too early.
The most important position with questions is the offensive line. A perennially weak position for Iowa State, problematic experienced players have finally left the ranks. Now, the line will consist of Campbell recruits who have been developing behind favored experience, not favored talent.
Collin Newell, a fourth-year player, and Trevor Downing, a third-year player will anchor the line and bring the most experience to the unit. I suspect third-year player Joey Ramos to protect the left side and road grader Robert Hudson to occupy a right side position. That leaves one open position at right tackle.
Sean Foster is a fifth-year player who has proven inept but could turn on the light and solidify the line. In the absence of that progression, Alex Kleinow and Derek Schweiger could get themselves into the mix. The more likely candidates are the talented Grant Treiber and Jake Remsburg who will be second-year players in 2020. Treiber and Remsburg have elite footwork (especially Remsburg) and size and I think they have high ceilings. Offensive linemen are very hard to predict outside of truly elite prospects (like Cade Mays or Trey Smith), so it is difficult to know who will emerge in the spring.
The offensive line will be new, but more talented than any that has been witnessed in the Campbell era. Ramos is an exciting prospect who was better than his predecessor this year. Hudson has a nasty attitude and is just a mountain of a human that creates a first level shield. There is an opportunity for a “Collin Olson” type player to emerge, and, in fact, that would be a boon to the development of the offensive line.
Wide receiver is quite interesting. Tarique Milton is a certified stud. Forget the drops, he can catch and score. Sean Shaw emerged at the end of the season and is likely to threaten all-conference status next year. After those two, there is a free-for-all with talented contenders. Darien Porter from Bettendorf has a high ceiling and is a tough player. I will be surprised if he does not become a target during the season. Joe Scates has a high upside but must develop a killer instinct to take advantage of his four-star talent. Xavier Hutchinson from this year’s class should take an early role as a primary target. Darren Wilson had some hype around his speed game, but it was not evident in 2019. If he puts in the work, he could outpace the younger players and be a factor.
It is hard to tell who will emerge as the third and fourth receivers. They are less important given the talent at tight end and the receiving talent at running back, but ISU needs a deep playmaker and it must come from Scates, Wilson, or Porter.
The other possibility for the receiving corp is that TJ Tampa is exactly what I believe he is and provides a third option that is a deep and yards after catch threat. Regardless, outside of Milton and Shaw, Iowa State is thin on experience and must find someone willing to prove their talent in order to fill out their route trees.
The weakest position on the ISU roster is on the interior defensive line. Tucker Robertson and Isaiah Lee have played some solid downs in the past two years, but their long term effectiveness is unknown. Joshua Bailey may be developing into a solid depth player. But, Latrell Bankston is being relied upon to be a Ray Lima type find.
The problem is that Bankston is not a Ray Lima type player. He takes more chances which can kill a defense when the A gap is left exposed. The good news is that Uwazurike has the size to drop down to the O tech and provide a solid fundamental standard at the position. I could also see a 1 and 3 tech in a 4 man front utilizing the skill sets of the available interior lineman.
The interior defensive line play from Lima and Johnson made the Iowa State defensive scheme work. It was the pivot point on which the change was made. It fit the skill sets of the personnel. The ISU staff is challenged in 2020 to develop scheme adjustments that utilize the talent available in their highest and best use.
Finally – special teams. I cannot stress enough how important the long snapper position is. ISU has taken it for granted. It will be tested in 2020. The kicker position has an experienced returning senior who has been less than solid thus far. The punter position returns injured Corey Dunn and Joe Rivera who is a magician on short-range kicks. There is potential here, but 2019 proved there is a need for improvement in the kicking game. This position is a big deal.
The coaching hires are a net positive for this team. ISU has faded physically at the end of each season in the Campbell era. The new strength and conditioning coach has a focus on extending the physical capabilities of the team as a whole. He has a proven track record and though I do not believe results will be seen until year two or three, the hire was warranted and solid.
The new running backs coach has a wealth of football knowledge and comes from Northwestern who is a thorn in the side of Iowa. I believe this is an attempt to deepen the schematic knowledge of the staff and both the running back coach and strength coach hires are aimed at increasing Iowa State’s ability to play effectively against physical teams such as Iowa, Kansas State, and Texas. This has been the Achilles heel of Iowa State football and the coaching additions are aimed at rehabbing that programmatic injury.
Iowa State’s talent base is as solid as it has ever been. Consider that each of Iowa State’s offensive line units in the Campbell era has featured one or more walk-ons as starters and primary contributors. This year, the replacements are well thought of recruits who have been waiting for their turn. Though depth remains an issue, the players that must fill those roles have a higher ceiling than those that have been available in the past. Year five of the Campbell era provides a true evaluation of the staff’s ability to manage a developmental program. 2020 provides an opportunity to once again achieve a 9 or 10 win season should everything fall in their favor, including luck factors. Can the talent emerge?