Football

THE LONG AND BINDING ROAD: ISU’s continued O-line growth once again critical to team success

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 

Eleven.

 That’s how many offensive linemen currently on Iowa State’s roster coach Matt Campbell would be fully comfortable with starting in the Cyclones’ Sept. 4 season-opener against Northern Iowa.

 It’s a heady number for a group long-maligned and only recently lauded as ISU’s program has ascended from near the bottom of the Big 12 standings to a repeat role as a top contender.

 It’s also more than double the number who could actually start any game, of course, but it nonetheless speaks powerfully to the dedicated work the Cyclones’ O-linemen have done mostly anonymously in the trenches to transform themselves from question marks to veritable strengths.

 Now, it’s “prove it” time — and with decorated players such as Colin Newell, Derek Schweiger and a fully healthy Trevor Downing leading the way — ISU’s frontmen appear fully ready for their close-up under the microscope.

 “We’ll see if I still feel that way two weeks from now, but I think they’re guys that through what we saw last year during the season, what we saw last year through their growth process in practice to what have they’ve done in the weight room, to where are they right now, man, I’d say there’s 11 guys I feel really comfortable with that could or have the ability to start on our football team,” Campbell said. “And we’re excited about some of those young guys and I’m not even adding (them) into that group yet, so I think a lot of depth and again, I still think that group’s got to handle the same thing. Hey, people think you’re somewhat good now. That group hasn’t had to handle that. How do you handle success? How do you handle playing good in some moments? And hopefully, they’re smart enough to turn the videotape on in some of those moments they didn’t play good — because our team didn’t (always) play good, but I think the reality of it is where does that group want to take our football program?”

 The destination: New heights. The Cyclones trounced Oregon, 34-17, in the Fiesta Bowl last season to notch their first-ever win in a New Year’s Six bowl game. They tied a program record by going 9-3 overall and narrowly fell to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, but need the O-line to take yet another step forward in order to have a chance to fully morph from contender to champion.

 Seems like the group’s up for it.

 “Where was our greatest growth last football season?” Campbell said. “It wasn’t, ‘Did (record-setting quarterback) Brock Purdy play better or worse? Did (All-American tailback) Breece Hall?’ They’d played really good football before that. It’s that offensive line taking a huge step forward — and now, can you take another step forward? Because I think there’s another step out there for that group to continue to grow. One of the great positives there is there’s competition. You’d better bring it every day or you might not play. 

“So I think when those things occur — and I think we were able to generate that and get that maybe a little bit earlier in some other positions; and I know I’ve said this: there’s gonna never be a quick fix for that at Iowa State. You can’t just get an instant answer at the offensive line position. It takes recruiting, development and time. And I think we’ve studied football and we know that three to four years you’re asking an 18-year-old offensive lineman to go block a 22-year-old man in there. That’s growth. And really I think we’re at that point where we continue to evolve and grow, and we’ve got depth, and we’ve got numbers, and we’ve got classes behind classes that continue to understand what the standard is up front and grow.”

 That means they must trust themselves — and each other. They must steadily seek improvement but avoid the perfectionism trap. It’s a difficult balancing act that requires bold mental maneuvers, but it’s one the Cyclones have been striking in recent years.

 Fun trumps anxiety. Work becomes play. Pressure turns into pleasure as any form of fear melts away.

“We play a sport that’s imperfect,” Campbell said. “It’s never gonna be perfect. No game will be perfect. No situation will be perfect. How we respond to it and prepare for it, we can handle, but we know and realize that. And I think just defining that, understanding that, (having) a global conversation about those things, I think that’s helped all of us.”