James Neal seeks to showcase “next level” talent on ISU’s experienced offensive line this season

Dec 29, 2023; Memphis, TN, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell (right) reacts with Iowa State Cyclones offensive linemen James Neal (75) during the second half against the Memphis Tigers at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports 

AMES — When Iowa State offensive line coach Ryan Clanton joins left tackle James Neal to review his early game film, they don’t know whether to wince or chuckle.

 So they kind of do both.

 “If you watch his film from the beginning of the year (last season) and then watch his film toward the end of the year, it’s a whole different person,” Clanton said of Neal, who started all 13 of the Cyclones’ games last season. “It’s fun to watch. I sit there and laugh with James when a clip comes off from early in the season and we sit there and we shake our heads and look at each other and just smile.”

 Neal, a 6-6, 336-pound junior from suburban Atlanta, epitomizes the term “late bloomer” on an ISU offensive line that returns all of its starters. He didn’t truly start playing high school football until is senior season, choosing to flirt with basketball until his body — and prospective coaches — urged him to transfer his talents from the court to the field.

 “I (was) just hearing everybody say, ‘Oh, you should be playing football,’” Neal said. “So, I mean, I just gave it a try, and here we are.”

 Neal’s rise in stature in an experienced room bodes well for a Cyclone offense that proved to be erratic last season. ISU scored 30 or more points in six games, but was held to 21 points or fewer four times. And any success sophomore quarterback Rocco Becht and sophomore tailback Abu Sama will find this season, as always, is rooted in the progress made by the guys up front.

 “I think getting (the running backs) on the same page with us will be huge,” senior right tackle Tyler Miller said. “Continuing to grow together through that stuff, because it’s hard to rush for a couple hundred yards a game and then against Texas run for, like, barely any yards. So just the growth of our team, really, is how we’re going to continue to be successful and consistent.”

 It’s also important for the Cyclones’ front men to be — in Clanton’s parlance — both “violent and versatile” and capable of playing multiple positions on the line.

 “It’s fun because you can let loose and (Clanton) does a good job of (having) you continually change sides,” said Miller, who’s started 23 games in the past two seasons. “Throughout spring ball me and James have been switching sides, and you just continue to grow. It helps you learn the game of football entirely, so that’s been really good and then you can continue to simplify things down and we can have great understanding because (Clanton’s) such a good teacher.”

 That’s evident across ISU’s offensive line as it strives to finally become a strength of head coach Matt Campbell’s program. Clanton’s ability to mold raw players such as Neal into every-down contributors is paramount to that ongoing pursuit of creating consistency up front.

 “Recently, I taught (Neal) how to play guard,” Clanton said. “He’s big and he’s athletic. Really athletic. … He hasn’t been exposed to that much football in his life, but the majority of guys I’ve coached in my career haven’t, either, so it’s kind of fun because they only know how to do it one way and it’s the way you’re trying to tell them how to do it.”

 So Neal’s a willing and eager learner. There are no bad habits to fix, no preconceived notions to dispel. All of which makes those film review sessions enjoyable, because they highlight how far he’s come in a relatively short time. 

 “It was good, especially after the season just seeing how much growth that I did make,” Neal said. “It was not so much inspiring, but it was nice — ‘OK, so I’m able to do this.’ And, you know, hopefully I can grow even more than I already did.”

 Count on that happening, Clanton said. 

 “He has the ability to play guard and tackle at the next level,” he said. “So it’s been pretty fun to teach him that.”