Growth of ISU’s young players has been key to team success — especially down the stretch

Dec 5, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell watches from the sidelines during their football game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday. Mandatory Credit: Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Many of Iowa State’s younger players have quietly toiled on special teams this season, or solely in practice. Some have managed to see snaps at their respective positions. All have worked hard to become fully game-ready when their number is called — and that’s happened quite frequently as the Cyclones’ closed out the regular season on a five-game win streak while clinching a spot in the Dec. 19 Big 12 Championship.

 “I think the most pleasing thing for me is they went in and there were not missed assignments,” Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said Tuesday of the growth of his 2s and 3s. “There was not confusion. There were not communications issues. There was not alignment issues. And that shows me that those guys have — and as coaches, our assistant coaches, that we’ve taught the right things all along. I think it’s what’s giving those guys the ability to play.”

 The Cyclones (8-2, 8-1 Big 12) have been able to plug in lesser-used players throughout the season, but especially down the stretch, because of how they’ve practiced and the trust that’s been built throughout the program.

 Case in point: True freshman safety Mason Chambers.

 He made a key stop in the Texas game with the Cyclones trailing 20-16 in the fourth quarter.

 The Longhorns eventually turned the ball over in the red zone on downs — and Brock Purdy then led ISU’s offense to the game-winning touchdown.

 Chambers has just four tackles this season, but he bowed up in a clutch situation.

 “(He performed well) in a big game,” Heacock said. “ (Fellow freshman safety) Craig McDonald has improved and improved and improved. (Another freshman defensive back) T.J. Tampa is now playing really good football — a true freshman. So I think those things have allowed those kids who haven’t been per se the defense of the week — I think we’ve kept consistent and it’s allowed those guys to feel confident to go in and play and we have confidence that they can go in there and play. That’s what I see.”

 Heacock’s seen that throughout his defense, including at linebacker, where Gerry Vaughn and Aric Horne, among others, have stepped up when headliners Mike Rose, O’Rien Vance and Jake Hummel have needed breaks.

 “The same,” Heacock said. “Aric came to us, didn’t get the spring ball, all those kinds of things and Gerry Vaughn has improved and improved — playing excellent on special teams for us. Dae’Shawn Davis (is) playing on all the special teams for us, getting some reps at WILL linebacker. Again, I think the same thing for those (guys). We’ve kept it consistent for the most part and I think it’s allowed them to have success.”

 A similar dynamic exists on offense, where backup quarterback Hunter Dekkers has been able to enjoy productive late-game reps and others such as tight ends Easton Dean and Jared Rus have performed well when called upon.

 Rus, offensive coordinator Tom Manning said, played about 14 snaps on offense in Friday’s 42-6 drubbing of West Virginia because vital senior Dylan Soehner had to sit out with an ankle injury.

 The good news: Soehner could very well be back for the title game, Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell said after Saturday’s win.

 The related positive news: Rus, a 6-2, 232-pound sophomore, contributed a strong effort in Soehner’s stead, proving yet again that ISU has developed quality depth in all three phases — and across all its classes.

 “He filled in in some of those roles in which we use Dylan and I think the nice thing for Jared was he didn’t have to replace Dylan,” Manning said. “I think it allowed us to do some different things that could kind of highlight what he can do, as well. So he did a really good job coming into the game.”

 Couple that with the growing depth in every offensive unit and it becomes clear that the Cyclones’ future is every bit as bright — or maybe even brighter — than the present.

 “I think for us being able to get some of those guys into the game has been really big,” Manning said. “Obviously getting them a chance to be on the football field in meaningful snaps is critical. I think probably first and foremost, (reserve tailback) Jirehl Brock has done a really good job coming in. He’s been in a little bit earlier in games as he’s kind of earned the right to do so. He’s been really, really good for us. I think we’ve been able to get Easton Dean in — there’s a lot of guys. But Easton Dean’s done a great job for us. Jared Rus has done a great job for us (and) has played a lot of special teams and then played a lot last week. I think we were really pleased with some of the young offensive lineman that came in. Jared Hufford, speaking in terms of those last two games, has done a really good job when he’s come in. And Hunter Dekkers has done a good job (at quarterback), as well. There’s more to mention, but I think what we appreciate most about that is when we have been able to get those guys in the game — and there’s a lot of those guys, those guys have done a really good job. And taking their practice reps to the football field, I think, is huge. It’s a good payoff for them.”

 It’s also critical to the team’s success, which hinges on staying as fresh and healthy as possible, especially now that postseason play swings into view.

 “The choice is you either continue to grow like we have all year, or you’re satisfied with what’s been accomplished,” Campbell said after the West Virginia game. “For me, I choose to grow. But for our 124 players in our program, they’re going to have to make a choice. That’s kind of the challenge. That’s what we’ve talked about at the end (of the regular season). And we either will or we will not. I guess we’ll find out (on Dec. 19).”