Oct 31, 2020; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones offensive lineman Colin Newell (57) prepares to snap the ball as offensive lineman Derek Schweiger (64) prepares to block during the game against the Kansas Jayhawks at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa State offensive line coach Jeff Myers echoed Matt Campbell in describing standout guard Trevor Downing as “full-go” this spring.
But it’s when Downing couldn’t go — because of an injury sustained in last season’s opening game against Louisiana — that Myers’ group made its biggest strides.
At the time, everything looked bleak. Downing is one of the Cyclones’ top linemen. ISU lost that game by 17 points. But the team didn’t let that setback define them. Instead, the Cyclones wrote their own story with an unprecedented ending — a first-ever New Year’s Six bowl triumph over Oregon to cap a nine-win season.
“Trevor, you can see the impact he has on this team and having him back is just, it’s great,” said fellow guard Derek Schweiger, a former walk-on who shined as a starter in 11 games last season. “We missed him last year, (but) he was still there with us throughout the entire season, teaching us, showing us, helping us through the ups and downs of the season, because he’d been through it. Having him back is just another blessing to have because he’s talented, he’s smart and he can play football, so that’s always a good thing.”
Make that a great thing.
Downing’s renewed vigor only enhances a finally deep unit that saw Schweiger, Darrell Simmons and Jake Remsburg ascend from obscurity to become crucial contributors.
Led by center Colin Newell, the Cyclones’ line was one of 11 finalists for the Joe Moore Award, which is bequeathed each season to the nation’s best frontmen.
ISU’s up-and-coming offensive line also helped ISU set program records in points per game (32.8), total offense (441.1), and yards per play (6.5).
“It was tough (sitting out), but we had success,” Downing said when asked about dealing with the protracted injury.
Indeed they did.
Now the Cyclones return five O-lineman with at least 10 career starts — and seven with at least four starts. That’s depth personified for a group that took the longest to develop in the Campbell era, but can now hone its considerable skills and continue emerging as a pronounced strength for the team.
“I think our philosophy, especially going into this spring is we really want to master the foundation of our offense, and for us up front, we have to continue to develop,” Myers said. “I think we’re really going to spend a lot of time on our fundamentals and techniques within our base game. So we’re gonna take things slow and we’re gonna be building on those concepts as we go. I think as we get through the spring, we will be putting the pads on and getting into a little bit more contact. Who that is and how much they’re getting is probably gonna be moreso those guys that we’re trying to evaluate; those young guys that probably don’t have the game video or the reps — the live reps, the collision reps — in order to fully evaluate them at this point.”
So the depth keeps building, but the list of stalwarts — starting with Newell, Schweiger and Downing — keeps expanding, as well. That can only bode well when the O-line faces future challenges, which are inevitable. Someone — or multiple “ones” — will get banged up. New names will emerge from the shadows bolstered by the extra spring work — and driven by the examples of those stalwarts, two of whom have battled through season-ending injuries in the past, and one of whom has journeyed from walk-on to pivotal puzzle piece.
“Trev did a really good of finding a silver lining through a really tough deal,” Myers said. “And you can put some of those young guys’ success and what they were able to do on Trev, too. He really did help the group out and was a great leader through probably a really tough times in his career.”
That’s when leaders shine most. Sometimes, again and again. Always grinding, even when the light at the end of the tunnel is barely perceptible, flickering in the distance.
“Everybody can play every position (up front) pretty much and just flip sides with ease,” Schweiger said. “That showed last year. I had to flip from right (guard) to left from the first game to the second game and coach Myers makes sure to get your confidence to where you can perform at either side of the ball, or at any position. And that’s just beneficial that everybody can play all, so it’s really kind of a plug and play. We kind of have the mentality to just stay ready at all times, just in case if something does happen that, of you’ve been playing left, you still have the fundamentals and confidence to go one the right if need be. … They always talk about being a master craftsmen. So whatever you do, run or pass, it’s all instinctual and it’s pretty easy to go by.”