Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell watches from the sideline during a NCAA college football game in the Cheez-It Bowl against Clemson, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, at the Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.
Iowa State’s 2022 spring football practices get underway on Friday and it is sure to be an interesting 15 practices with a bunch of new faces to learn over the next month.
Here are three thoughts and questions on my mind before reporters talk to Matt Campbell via Zoom on Monday.
1 – The heir apparent takes center stage
Welcome to the spotlight, Hunter Dekkers.
It is time for Iowa State to finally replace four-year starter Brock Purdy and the 6-foot-3, 235-pound redshirt sophomore from Hawarden, Iowa, is the unquestioned favorite to land the job.
We’ve seen his talent in flashes over the last two seasons, mostly in garbage time, but is he ready to take the reigns and run the show?
The West Sioux High School product is one of the most prolific prep passers in Iowa history and largely performed well when given opportunities to relieve Purdy, completing 20-of-31 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns in four games in 2021.
He also carried the ball four times for 61 yards and two touchdowns last season, and that quarterback run game seems likely to be a more significant piece of the offense with Dekkers behind center.
Aidan Bouman enters the spring as the clear No. 2 behind Dekkers with true freshman early enrollee Rocco Becht, plus preferred walk-ons Ashton Cook and Nate Glantz, competing for that back-up role, too.
The man of the hour will be Dekkers, though, and it will be interesting to see how much coaches and players will discuss the offense’s evolution to fit Dekkers’ talents moving forward rather than an attack geared around Purdy.
2 – New faces to watch on defense
Mike Rose, Jake Hummel, Enyi Uwazurike, Zach Petersen, Greg Eisworth and Datrone Young are all gone. Those are some big shoes for the next generation of Cyclone defenders to fill.
Luckily, senior linebacker O’Rien Vance and senior defensive back Anthony Johnson are back as the veteran voices of the defense while All-American defensive end Will McDonald takes over as the face of Jon Heacock’s group.
Vance will be tasked with bringing along stalwart back-up Gerry Vaughn, Delaware transfer Colby Reeder and a host of young, talented linebackers that Matt Campbell called the best group of linebackers top-to-bottom during his tenure in Ames.
“It will probably be the most competitive position group that we’ve had,” Campbell said in the program’s spring practice prospectus.
Johnson, who is expected to get reps at safety after four years at cornerback, will be leading another young group headlined by late-2021 breakouts Craig McDonald and Beau Freyler. That trio very well could be Iowa State’s starting safeties for the season opener against Southeast Missouri on Sept. 3.
Veterans T.J. Tampa and Tayvonn Kyle will be expected to lead the cornerbacks if Johnson’s move to safety becomes permanent, but sophomore Myles Purchase and senior D.J. Miller will be factors to earn significant playing time, as well.
Keep an eye on speedster Darien Porter, who flips to the defensive side after spending his first two seasons in the program at wide receiver.
The Bettendorf native and one of the best high school track athletes in Iowa history has been a standout on special teams during his first two years on the field. He’ll be a factor at corner if he picks up the defensive side in a quick fashion.
Lastly, McDonald will draw nearly all the attention for the defensive front, but Iowa State’s all-time sack king will be expected to lead Eli Rasheed’s room alongside veterans J.R. Singleton and Isaiah Lee.
That duo of Singleton and Lee will hold down the nose guard spot, but the defensive end position opposite of McDonald feels totally open with a host of talented players expected to compete for snaps.
One-time highly-touted recruit Blake Peterson stuck out as a reserve last season while tallying six tackles and two sacks. Joey Petersen, the younger brother of Zach Petersen, could insert himself into this conversation as a sophomore after burning his redshirt playing special teams last season.
3 – Who surprises with a breakout spring?
Every year, there is someone who unexpectedly solidifies themselves as a contender for major playing time.
Could one of the talented tailbacks from the 2021 class challenge Jirehl Brock to be Iowa State’s game-one starter? Where does early enrolee Cartevious Norton fit in this equation?
Deon Silas showed off his ability while appearing in five games as a freshman last season and Eli Sanders has been called one of the program’s fastest players.
Brock will play a lot regardless of what those two do, but that trio plus Norton have the program in good hands at running back despite the departure of all-time Cyclone great Breece Hall.
We all know what Iowa State has in Xavier Hutchinson, and it will be interesting to see new areas of his game unlocked with a bigger arm like Dekkers’ behind center. Who slides in alongside Hutchinson and sophomore Jaylen Noel to be Dekkers’ top targets?
Sean Shaw is finally back to full health after battling injuries for stretches each of the last two years. Darren Wilson and Daniel Jackson are experienced players with a chance to elevate their stock, but keep an eye on mid-year enrollee true freshman Greg Gaines as well.
“Greg Gaines III is a true freshman that is here and ready to go,” Campbell said. “There is a lot of competition and a lot of excitement in this (receiver) group.”