UNI QB Theo Day might eventually play on Sundays, but ISU must stop him this Saturday

Sep 3, 2022; Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA; Northern Iowa Panthers quarterback Theo Day (12) passes the ball under pressure from Air Force Falcons defensive lineman Caden Blum (87) in the fourth quarter at Falcon Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports 

AMES — Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock is firmly convinced Northern Iowa quarterback Theo Day will eventually play on Sundays.

 But first, he and his defense must face Day on Saturday.

 “I think he’s obviously an NFL quarterback,” Heacock said. “His mobility, arm strength, stability, all those different things — experience, I think he’s one of those guys.”

 That makes derailing UNI’s quarterback job No. 1 for the Cyclone defense when it faces the Panthers Saturday (1:00 p.m. ESPN+), but multiple tasks must be performed adroitly if ISU is to start the season on a winning note. None of those duties are more important than improved offensive line play, as at least two Cyclones quarterbacks — redshirt freshman Rocco Becht and true freshman J.J. Kohl — are expected to see the field.

 “Both guys have mobility,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell said. “Both guys can make all the throws and certainly both guys have great leadership ability.”

 But can both guys duel to the point where there’s a clear No. 1 guy? That’s a stay-tuned situation as the Cyclones seek to vanquish the Panthers for the fourth consecutive time.

 “It’s very exciting knowing that (we’re) a young team and the only way is up,” ISU wide receiver Jaylin Noel said of the offense in general. “Those guys are already at a great level but they can only get better, even myself. There’s always room for improvement and that’s the exciting part about it.”

 Growth is certainly required for a Cyclone offense that ranked 113th nationally in scoring (20.2 points per game) and 128th nationally in red zone conversions a year ago. Becht and Kohl — as well as a reinvigorated and wide-ranging running game — light the path toward improving those dismal trends, but UNI’s never a pushover on the defensive side of the ball.

 “That will be another measuring stick as we get into game day,” Campbell said of his top two quarterbacks. “What’s that look like? Will it be perfect? It won’t be. It won’t be for either of them, but their ability to re-center themselves and play the next snap (is important). Because when the ball is in your hand, that ability to be resilient and be able to play the next play, I think that’s a special trait.”

 Day possesses all the top traits a quarterback could desire. He’s 6-5 and weighs 231 pounds. He’s 23 and well-acquainted with the sport’s ups and downs. He’s seen one dream denied early in his career at Michigan State, but he’s used that disappointment to fuel him after a lack of playing time pushed him to transfer to UNI.

 “He can throw the ball,” ISU safety Malik Verdon said succinctly. “He’s really good at that.”

 Day can run the ball as well, but his growth as a passer is most pronounced. He completed just 56% of his passes in his first season with the Panthers while mustering a meager 16-to-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last season, Day connected on 65 percent of his throws and threw 26 touchdown passes to just six interceptions.

 “You’ve just got a lot of respect for (him),” Campbell said. “I’ve watched enough of his videotape to really just understand and appreciate what his talent level is. Big. Great vision. The ability to make all the throws. He’s kind of got that great whip on the ball where his ability to make the throw and not hold onto the football — I think you could see him as the season went on last year really grow confidence.”

 Campbell’s seen the same thing going on in his quarterbacks room, where there’s scant separation and spirited competition. And as good as Day is, Becht, Kohl — or a combination of both, with a dash of third-string Tanner Hughes mixed in — must be even better.

 “I think all three of those guys, the first quality that I do appreciate is they know who they are as humans,” Campbell said. “I think at the quarterback spot, this ability to, man, know thyself, right? It’s critical because good things are gonna happen, bad things are gonna happen. It’s almost this ability to re-center yourself really fast. That’s where success can happen.”