ISU receivers eager to reel in (many) more touchdown passes this season

Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Jaylin Noel (13) runs with the ball after making a chatch around West Virginia Mountaineers defensive back Aubrey Burks (2) during the first half in the Big-12 showdown at Jack Trice Stadium Saturday, Nov. 5. 2022, in Ames, Iowa. Syndication: The Ames Tribune

AMES — It didn’t take long for Jaylin Noel and Jayden Higgins to become fast friends.

 All it took was a shared love of hooks, lines and sinkers. And once Iowa State’s top-returning receiver and it’s most highly-touted newcomer discovered a shared love of fishing, the casting commenced and the reels keep spinning.

 “Really, we just look on the maps and try to find any spot we can,” said Higgins, a talented transfer from Eastern Kentucky. “Jaylin has the biggest (catch) of the season. I think he caught like a 5.5-pound (bass). I’m close behind with like a 4.5.”

 As impressive as those catches are, Noel and Higgins are chasing bigger ones as fall camp amps up and dovetails toward the Sept. 2 season opener against Northern Iowa.

 It’s still unclear who will be throwing the most passes to them and other Cyclone receivers, but Higgins is comfortable with a currently cloudy quarterback situation. He’s just trying to fit into a deep receivers room replete with veterans and newcomers alike vying for the most reps.

 “Our competition is great,” said Higgins, a 6-4 junior who caught 10 touchdown passes with the Colonels last season. “We’ve got so many guys that can make plays at any given time, so that’s a great thing to see. Whether it’s me, Jaylin, Dimitri (Stanley), or D-Jack (Daniel Jackson), it doesn’t matter. We can all make that big play.”

 But will they on Saturdays? That’s one of the key questions for an ISU offense that was pass-heavy last season and highly-dependent on record-setting senior Xavier Hutchinson, who is now with the Houston Texans. The Cyclones fielded the third-most prolific passing offense in terms of yardage (261.8 yards per game) last season, but tied for last in touchdown passes (19). Hutchinson caught a team-leading six touchdown passes. Noel reeled in three — second-best among ISU receivers.

 “X, he pushed me all last season to be a better version of myself,” Noel said. “When he left, he left a mark (for me) to be consistent and continue to work on my draft and be a better player each day.”

 Noel, Higgins and Stanley serve as the headliners when it comes to replacing Hutchinson’s robust production, but Jackson — who’s battled injuries throughout his career — and several others are poised to compete for playing time, as well.

 “(Jackson) has been as a consistent as anybody just coming out there and working each day,” Cyclone offensive coordinator Nate Scheelhaase said. “So I’ve been excited about where that room is at and what they’ve been doing. Really excited to see them obviously going into this Saturday, having another great opportunity to get back on the (scrimmage) game field and make plays.”

 Noel and Higgins are understandably excited, too. Noel, at 5-10 and 200 pounds, and Higgins, at 6-4 and 215 pounds, complement each other well. Noel can stretch the field with quick, precise cuts and straight-line speed. He’s also a prime candidate to be the No. 1 punt returner and kick returner. 

 “I feel like I’ve become a better route runner,” said Noel, who caught 60 passes for 572 yards last season. “I’m better at the catch point. Better with the deep ball. I feel like those are some of the things I could have improved on this season, so those are the big things that I focus on and that I’ve gotten better at.”

 Same goes for his fishing acumen — a hobby Noel and Higgins have put in hold as they reel in passes instead of bass. Footballs, not fish, are their quarry now and they’re confident they can continue to snare the big ones on Saturdays, smiling confidently as they seek to glide through coverage and score touchdowns that proved to be elusive last season.

 “Whether I’m playing football or just hanging out with the guys, I’m just always enthusiastic and just having a really good time with whatever I’m doing,” Higgins said.