Iowa State seeks to “separate” itself from its 2024 foes via demanding summer workouts

Iowa State football head coach Matt Campbell speaks during the Cyclones Tailgate Tour at MidAmerican Energy RecPlex on Thursday, May 9, 2024, in West Des Moines, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

 PELLA — Each additional weight plate clinked and clanked with greater resonance.

 The requisite grunts, groans and shouts for one more rep, one last push, served as a percussive soundtrack for a young Matt Campbell’s grueling mission: Getting bigger, stronger and tougher as the summer sun blazed outside Mount Union’s weight room.

 “I loved the summer as a player because it was the one time I felt like I could separate myself from the competition,” Iowa State’s head football coach said at a Tailgate Tour stop at Tamory Hall. “That’s kind of what I talk a lot about with our kids. Everybody’s getting this block. Sometimes we think we’re the only ones in winter conditioning, or spring practice, but everybody’s getting it, but not everybody’s using that time the same way.”

 Campbell’s Cyclones will enter this summer’s strength and conditioning period on a mettle-based mission much their head coach did while starring for the Division III Purple Raiders from 1999-2002.

 ISU returns 19 starters from last season’s team that went 7-6 overall and 6-3 in Big 12 play while reaching a bowl game for the sixth time in the past seven years. So this summer could set the stage for more progress as the Cyclones seek to fully contend for a conference title for the first time since reaching the league championship game in 2000.

 “You say, ‘What’s exciting about this team?’” Campbell said. “Man, they’re searching for what it takes to take the next step. And to be able to have those conversations about creating an edge and using you next eight to 12 weeks better than somebody in Lawrence, Kansas, or somebody in Stillwater, Oklahoma — how do you separate yourself from the pack? I think our kids are hungry to do that. I as a player was hungry to do it. I as a coach love that aspect of it to be quite honest with you.”

 The summer strength and conditioning session affords players their last chance to layer on several pounds of muscle while adhering to a detailed and exacting nutrition plan. In the fall, those efforts tend to bear fruit in the form of fewer injuries, greater depth and the ability to stay fresh for four quarters. All of that, in turn, creates opportunities to carve out more wins, turning winning seasons into more remarkable ones.

 “Us being so young (last season) and us continuing to grow up, I think one area that you can see youth grow is physically,” Campbell said. “I think there’s a whole ‘nother revolution even in this 12-week period before we get back to August that I think is so critical for our football team. You just can’t miss that step.”

 ISU’s players can, however, enjoy some time off. Most of the Cyclones went home after the spring semester ended and won’t return until the tail end of the Memorial Day weekend. They’ll then quickly delve into the arduous slate of summer workouts, building momentum for one of the most eagerly-anticipated seasons of ISU football in recent memory.

 “This group is still so young,” Campbell said. “And I don’t think anybody feels like they’ve arrived.”

 Not even quarterback Rocco Becht, who attained Big 12 freshman offensive player of the year honors last season. Especially not Becht, who is his own sharpest critic.

 “The guys around me build my confidence every single day,” Becht said during spring practice. “That just helps me within the season as well.”

 This season’s schedule sets up favorably after all the summer workouts cease. Five of the Cyclones’ Big 12 games will be at Jack Trice Stadium and only three will be true road games. ISU will also enjoy two bye weeks, which gives coaches more flexibility in planning for the season as the din of the weight room dissolves and the roar of the crowd beckons. 

 “What I do love about the scheduling is you can alter fall camp a little bit because you play two games then get a bye,” Campbell said. “You know there’s a five-game block, and then you get the opportunity to reevaluate, and then you get a five-week sprint to a (possible) conference championship game. We’re really excited. Most of my excitement goes back to this young team (and) what we’ve been about. I think last year could have gone one or two ways, and I think the amount of young kids that got great experience and playing time and the opportunity to gain confidence, I think that was huge for us.”