Iowa State redshirt junior wide receiver Joe Scates awaits a snap during the Cyclones’ 48-3 win over UNLV on Saturday. (Photo by Jacqueline Cordova, Cyclone Fanatic)
Iowa State could be on the verge of answering one of its biggest offseason questions.
We talked all summer long about the Cyclones’ need to establish a solid second option at the wide receiver position alongside Xavier Hutchinson plus tight end Charlie Kolar. It was, and remains, a crucial thing for an Iowa State offense looking to relieve some of the pressure from two of its best pass-catching playmakers and to prevent defenses from being able to heavily roll coverages in their directions.
Through two games, that predicament seemed no closer to a resolution. Then, we arrived at Iowa State’s 48-3 win over UNLV last weekend and along with it came a potential breakout performance from another of the program’s highly-talented wideouts.
I’m talking about redshirt junior Joe Scates, the former four-star recruit who has shown tantalizing flashes of talent during his first two seasons on the field in Ames. He had a career-high 54 yards on three receptions against UNLV, including a 33-yard catch and run when Scates caught the ball on the left sideline, immediately slipped a tackle and reversed field for an additional 15 yards.
“That’s something that Joe does every day,” Hutchinson, who caught 10 passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns in the win, said on Tuesday. “That was nothing new. The only thing was I was probably just watching football at that moment.”
Like the rest of us, Iowa State’s star wideout wanted to stop and watch Scates’ dynamic athleticism and playmaking ability.
It was the kind of play that speaks to the talent level Scates has possessed since he joined the program back in 2018 when a staff member at the time told me he would rank among the program’s best pure football players.
“If you just rolled the balls out and played backyard football, that kid would be the best guy on the field,” the staff member said ahead of Scates’ freshman season. “It’s all the other things holding him back right now, but he’ll get there.”
Now, more than three years later, the other things seem to be clicking.
The Dayton, Ohio native is currently fourth on the team with five receptions for 63 yards, but he’s also had a pair of touchdown receptions negated by penalties during the team’s first three contests. There was also a fumble (that might not have been a fumble but was ruled one anyway) on Iowa State’s first possession of the season, but it was something that can be chalked up as a forced play fueled by a desire to make something happen and highlight his abilities on the edge.
“If I could just go down memory lane from week one, you saw a guy who was kind of a little bit jittery,” Hutchinson said. “First time really starting and getting a role on the team. Week two, everybody kind of had the jitters, but week three, I think, you see him more comfortable. I think he knows his role now. I just can’t wait to see him shine in that role.”
It has been a long journey for Scates to reach any level of consistency and he’ll still be striving to find it with a second straight strong performance when Iowa State travels to Waco for its Big 12 opener against Baylor on Saturday.
We saw his raw talent on display during his freshman season, scoring a touchdown on the second catch of his career in the program’s win over West Virginia that year.
He added two more scoring receptions last season, one against Kansas and another against Kansas State, with both plays showing Scates’ potential as a downfield threat. Still, the consistency wasn’t there and he remained a bit of a question mark each time he was on the field.
All of the pieces could finally be falling into place now, though, and it is coming at a moment when Iowa State needs a player with Scates’ talent and potential to shine through on Saturdays as it does in practice every day.
“Joe is one of those guys that I’d say in our program has grown as much as anybody in terms of where he was as a freshman to who he’s become today,” Matt Campbell said. “For Joe, I think it’s confidence. I think it’s structure. I think it’s trust. I think it’s all those things that take time. Now, you’re seeing a guy that stayed the course and probably 90 percent of the guys in his shoes haven’t stayed the course. He has, and he’s been willing to take the coaching and he’s been willing to stay the course with us and, man, his God-given ability is starting to flourish and I think he’s got all the tools in the world to be really special.”