Now that basketball season has ended, Iowa State fans have the long, cruel summer to wait through to get more action from their favorite team. That's 137 days from today, an eternity with nothing but baseball, the NBA and NHL playoffs to satiate the sports itch.
But there is one event that can help ease the pain for Cyclone fans: The Iowa State football spring game is this Saturday at Jack Trice stadium. While spring games never reveal much by design (it's a glorified scrimmage), it's a chance for fans to get a sneak peek at the early, early prototype of the team that will be taking the field in the fall.
Specifically, take a peek at the offense, because that's the unit that's most likely going to have to carry the load if ISU is going to get back to a bowl game next season. And at this point, that just seems fair. The defense, while never spectacular during Paul Rhoads tenure, has done a relatively good job at keeping opponents out of the end zone, ranking a respectable 38th nationally in scoring defense in 2012 and 33rd in 2009 in scoring defense (don't worry about 2011 and 2010, they were... quite a bit worse statistically).
But the offense has had a tougher time putting points on the scoreboard, ranking 87th nationally in scoring offense in 2012, 90th in 2011, 97th in 2010 and 103rd in 2009. So hey! Very, very, very slowly moving on up!
This wouldn't be a problem if Iowa State played in an offensively-inept league like the Big Ten, but the Cyclones play in the highest scoring conference in the country. So its about time ISU's offense started pulling it's own weight, and in the past year Paul Rhoads has taken steps to correct this problem, hiring former Washington State offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy to coach wide receivers and Arkansas offensive line coach Chris Klenakis to oversee the offensive line.
So with that in mind, let's take a look at what to watch for this Saturday:
Drawing Pistols: How big of an influence will new offensive line coach Chris Klenakis have on the offense? Paul Rhoads has continuously stressed that Iowa State needs to have a strong running game to be successful. That didn't happen in 2012, as the Cyclones only ran for 150.08 yards a game and 4.20 yards a carry. Those anemic numbers put Iowa State 75th nationally in rushing offense. Not great.
Hopefully, that's where Chris Klenakis comes in. The guy helped develop the pistol offense while he was the offensive coordinator at Nevada, and the pistol has proven to be an effective running formation over the years. Iowa State has used the pistol at times during Paul Rhoads tenure, but it's never caught on as an integral part of the offensive. Will Klenakis strictly be coaching the offensive line, or will he help install the pistol as an essential component of the Cyclone offense? Watching to see when and how often Iowa State deploys the pistol formation during the spring game can provide clues to what ISU's offense will look like next season.
The Search For Seneca 2.0 Continues: Finding an answer at quarterback is probably the biggest key to Iowa State's 2013 season. Maybe the largest fault for Paul Rhoads as a coach is his inability thus far to develop an effective quarterback at Iowa State. From 2009-2012, it didn't matter who was under center, they were putting up mediocre-to-bad numbers.
Sam Richardson showed a lot of promise in his first game against Kansas, but that was against possibly the worst team in football. He had much less stellar outings against West Virginia and Tulsa, but those games were played in terrible weather and while suffering from the flu, respectively. So which Sam Richardson will show up in 2013? Sammy Sunshine the savior from the Kansas game, or Tamiflu Sam from the Tulsa game?
Simply put, either Sam Richardson (12) or Grant Rohach (4) needs to take control of the quarterback position in 2013 and be an effective player. Neither has to be a Heisman contender, they just need to complete at least 60% of their passes, minimize turnovers and run effectively. Watch the spring game to see how each QB fares in a no-contact scrimmage. If they can hit their receivers in stride and avoid interceptions in the spring game, that bodes well for the 2013 offense.
Youth In Receiver: Speaking of the receivers, they've also been less than spectacular during Paul Rhoads' time at Iowa State. The closest Iowa State has come to a dynamic playmaker at WR in the last four years has been Darius Reynolds, and his career was hampered by injury and unmet expectations. But this is a bit of a chicken/egg situation, have ISU's receivers sucked because the quarterbacks couldn't hit water in an ocean, or have the quarterbacks sucked because the receivers couldn't catch chlamydia at a brothel?
It's probably a little bit of both, but there's no denying that Iowa State needs more effective receivers, players who can make a defender miss and get upfield. Rhoads has stated this is the thinnest position on the field this spring from an experience standpoint, but that's actually a bit exciting. All were excellent Cyclones, but it's not like Aaron Horne, Josh Lenz, Jerome Tiller or Chris Young are irreplaceable.
Redshirt sophomore Quenton Bundrage (9) came on strong at the end of last year, recording 19 catches for 219 yards in the last six games of the season. Quan West (81) might have seen playing time as a true freshman before an ACL tear in fall camp derailed his season. Dondre Daley (13), Tad Ecby (6) and PJ Harris (4) are all redshirt sophomores or younger and round out the two deeps. All are also 6' or taller, giving ISU some size they've been sorely lacking at the position for the past few seasons. Watch to see if the young guys can live up to the hype.
Big Show JUCOs: The two junior college players that will be on the field Saturday probably have more excitement around them then the rest of the 2013 recruiting class combined. That's due in part to their circuitous route to Iowa State. Aaron Wimberly (2) was courted heavily by Boise State and Penn State after he committed to ISU; Emmanuel Bibbs (11) took a visit to Oklahoma after he committed to the Cyclones. Players with offers from the Nittany Lions and Sooners don't commit to ISU every year.
But that excitement is also due to the reports leaking out of spring practice. Running backs coach Ken Pope, tight ends coach Bill Bleil and Paul Rhoads have all raved about Bibbs and Wimberly's performance so far this spring. And that's intriguing, because Iowa State is in constant search for playmakers to jump start its flagging offense. Watch to see how many touches Wimberly and Bibbs get, and to see if either shows flashes of being the players the Cyclones so desperately need.
Of course there are other things to watch for this year. How well does the offensive line seem to be gelling? What's the tempo of the offense? Is Courtney Messingham still rocking the mustache, and how grizzly has Paul Rhoads let his beard get? But these four items should provide a handy primer for the spring game.
Time: Saturday, April 20 at 2:00 PM Central (Jack Trice Stadium, parking first come, first served in A,B,C & D lots)
Media: No television, audio only through Cyclones.tv
Format: Scrimmage, offense vs. defense
Out: Shaban Dika OL (Career-ending ACL tears), Tad Ecby WR (Hamstring), David Irving DE (Shoulder), Shontrelle Johnson RB (Knee surgery), Jansen Watson CB (Shoulder)
Why You Should Go: Get your first look at the 2013 football team, pick up the new poster and a new t-shirt from Cy's Locker Room, and drink a beer or two in the Jack Trice parking lot in perfect football weather. What other excuse do you need?