New Iowa State center Jim Bonifas eager to lead the charge up front Saturday against Iowa

Iowa State Cyclones’ offensive line Jim Bonifas (63) celebrates with the team after a touchdown during the first quarter in the season-opening game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

 AMES — When Jim Bonifas called for the ball in the paint, his defender winced. One move later and that opposing player lay sprawled on the floor, bruised and battered, beset by pain.

 A whistle blew and Bonifas trudged the other way, familiar with the inelegant pattern.

 “Yeah, I got a lot of charge calls,” the 6-5, 310-pound former basketball center for Dubuque Senior and current starting football center for Iowa State said. “I had to figure out how to change my play a little bit, but it was fun.”

 Now Bonifas, a redshirt sophomore, is poised to mount charges of a different sort for the Cyclones as he prepares to make his second career start overall and first against in-state rival Iowa at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (FOX).

 “We know they’re a good team and we’ve got to take them and just figure out what they do and just try to do what we can,” Bonifas said. “I’m really excited.”

 The burly but not bulky former high school tackle is one of ISU’s most important players. The center is, well, at the center of everything on offense. He surveys the opposing defense. He shouts out commands to his cohorts up front and must establish and maintain a deep rapport with his quarterback, or things tend to go haywire.

 That can be especially true in the typically unpredictable and topsy-turvy Cy-Hawk game. The Cyclones (1-0) snapped a six-game losing streak in the series last season at Kinnick Stadium, but haven’t vanquished the Hawkeyes (1-0) at Jack Trice Stadium since James White strode into the end zone to seal a 44-41 triple-overtime triumph in 2011. That, of course, occurred at the height of then-head coach Paul Rhoads’ era — and now eighth-year ISU head coach Matt Campbell seeks to lead his team to back-to-back wins over Iowa for the first time since 2011-12.

 “I think it’s a great test for both teams in the early part of the football season,” Campbell said. “It’s a very unique rivalry game, too. You get two teams that are so close that are in two different conferences and you play that game at the beginning of the season rather than at the end of the season, so I think that makes it a unique football game, for sure.”

 It’s a unique challenge as well — and primarily because of the strength of both team’s defenses. Six years have passed since both teams rushed for more than 100 yards in the Cy-Hawk game, so from an ISU perspective, Bonifas’s growth along with his fellow offensive linemen looms large with respect to Saturday’s outcome.

 “He’s grown a ton,” the Cyclones’ first-year offensive coordinator Nate Scheelhaase said of Boniface. “(New offensive line coach Ryan) Clanton has taught all of those guys in a different way and I think their growth and just understanding of our run schemes and understanding our pass protection has grown immensely. But at the center spot, that’s critical. You’ve got to be in charge. You’ve got to be the captain up front. You’ve got to get guys organized with what’s going on, what changes are being made, and he’s done a great job of just taking ownership of that leadership opportunity.”

 Bonifas’s emergence at center is a natural outgrowth of Clanton’s propensity to drill all of his offensive linemen at every position. He doesn’t slot players into starting roles based on an “eye test.” If a player looks like a tackle but excels at guard, he’ll play guard — and vice versa. ISU’s needed improvements along its offensive front are still decidedly a work in progress, but Clanton’s exhortation to be violent and versatile seems to be having the desired effect. And for Bonifas, that means charges are no longer penalized. They’re welcomed and celebrated. 

 “It’s football at the end of the day,” Bonifas said. “Once you get that first snap out of the way, you kind of realize that you’ve done this 1,000 times, right? So just getting those nerves out of the way early and being able to play fast will be important for us.”