ISU’s QB competition deepens as Cyclones prepare for season opener against UNI

Nov 26, 2022: Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones quarterback Rocco Becht (3) is pressured by TCU Horned Frogs linebacker Dee Winters (13) during second half at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports 

AMES — Usually by the time Victory Day — Iowa State football’s ultimate feel-good event — rolls around, Cyclone head coach Matt Campbell has named a starting quarterback.

 Not this season. Redshirt freshman Rocco Becht might have taken by far the most “snaps” at quarterback Friday night during the annual event that gives children with disabilities dozens of touchdown-scoring moments at Jack Trice Stadium, but that doesn’t mean he’s the No. 1 quarterback.

 It’s between Becht and highly-regarded true freshman J.J. Kohl — and it’s a spirited competition that has stretched well into the handful of days preceding Saturday’s 1 p.m. season opener against Northern Iowa.

 “I’ll just say this,” Campbell said after smiling broadly for a couple of hours during the Victory Day festivities. “I think we’ve had a really good competitive camp. I still think, as I’ve said to you guys multiple times, we’re so young in so many areas that until these bright lights come on and we get through the early part of the football season, I think you’re gonna see a lot of kids playing.”

 Campbell hinted earlier this month that all three of his quarterbacks — Becht, Kohl and junior college transfer Tanner Hughes — could play at some point. So nothing’s settled and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

 “You’d better come in on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday practice if you expect to start on Saturday,” Campbell said.

 So stay tuned as the Cyclones prepare to take on the Panthers and their talented veteran quarterback Theo Day.

 “There (are) areas where you feel like we have two or three guys that have the ability to start on our football team (and) on some of these position groups,” Campbell said.

 That assessment rings strikingly true at quarterback, where Becht, a redshirt freshman, boasts the most experience. He’s still green, though, having thrown just 15 passes last season in limited duty. The 6-1, 205-pounder connected on seven of those throws and his longest completion spanned 24 yards.

 “He’s a natural leader,” ISU’s leading returning receiver Jaylin Noel said of Becht. “He’s a guy that’s gonna go out there and compete.”

 Kohl — a four-star recruit and early enrollee from Ankeny — has pushed Becht since arriving on campus in the winter. He’s already physically mature, standing 6-7 and weighing 250 pounds, and his arm talent is elite.

 “J.J., he’s a very competitive quarterback,” Noel said. “Knows the system. Even though he just came in, he’s a guy that’s willing to take notes and ask questions, and he’s always looking for extra work.”

 Hughes — who threw 25 touchdown passes to just five interceptions in two seasons at Butte (Calif.) College — could be deployed in certain packages this season. The 6-5, 240-pound junior from Chico, Calif. is a powerful runner and serves as a wild card in the ongoing battle for starting quarterback snaps.

 “He’s an athletic guy and his arm is really good,” Noel said.

 So who will start? Who knows? A few months ago, few would have been asking that question, but when last year’s starter, Hunter Dekkers, was charged as part of the Iowa Criminal Division of Investigation’s inquiry into sports gambling, the race became wide-open.

 The only certainty: Whoever takes the Cyclones’ first snap at quarterback on Saturday will be one of the least experienced in the Big 12. Hence the long-running competition. And hence Campbell’s desire to see how each player handles the transition from practice work to pressure-packed game reps. 

 “When you talk quarterback play, (there are) two things that I think are absolutely critically important,” Campbell said. “Number one is, can you lead the team? Good or bad, can you be the guy that everybody in that locker room believes in and can you lead the football team? The second thing is you’ve got to take care of the football. When you’ve seen us (have) great quarterback play at Iowa State over the last seven years, what those guys have done elite is they’ve been able to take care of the football. I think all those other things will come, but I think those two things are first and foremost.”