On a gorgeous, sun-soaked day in Ames, it was invigorating to be back in the tailgating lots of Jack Trice Stadium, drinking beer and grilling brats in anticipation of seeing the 2014 football team for the first time. Coming off a 3-9 season and a bitterly cold central Iowa winter, yesterday's spring game had the feel of new beginnings, both for the fans and the team.
Having been one of the many Cyclone fans in attendance, I can honestly say I wish I would have just kept tailgating, but given my journalistic responsibilities, I drug my half-buzzed self into the stands with an open mind and a smuggled 6-pack in tow.
It's hard to imagine things getting worse after the debacle that was the 2013 season, but then this offseason happened, which saw mass attrition to the defensive side of the ball, including Saturday's dismissal of David Irving and a complete overhaul of the assistant coaches and you had to start wondering, will things get worse before they get better? I set out to find some clarity to that question and the early return for an answer is, I don't know.
Let's get to the observations.
Grant Rohach is the starter. This much is clear. The staff didn't even hint at the illusion of a quarterback controversy on Saturday afternoon. Rhoads wouldn't confirm Rohach's status in his post-scrimmage remarks, but the distribution of snaps with the first-team offense told us all we need to know. Joel Lanning and Sam Richardson, thought to have also been in the running for the job, spent the majority of the day leading the second and third strings. Richardson in particular seemed to be the completely out of the running, which is surprising to say to be least considering he was thought to have had such a firm grasp on the starting job entering last season.
In any event, it appears that Rhoads and new offensive coordinator Mark Mangino have their guy in Rohach. The redshirt sophomore who ended last season with consecutive 300-yard passing games looked more comfortable running the show, but I wouldn't go so far as saying he was particularly outstanding. Rohach finished 22-37 for 171 yards, but had two costly picks and struggled with the deep ball. The entirety of the Cyclone signal callers rarely tested the secondary, opting for a healthy array of swing passes, bubble screens and short and underneath routes. I'm sure the intermediate and deep routes are in the playbook, but we didn't see much of them Saturday.
The fact is, Iowa State quarterbacks have struggled to do the most basic things in recent years, namely getting the ball out quickly and accurately to the edges, which has led to a serious lag in respect to their Big 12 peers. Watching the play calling and execution on Saturday, you almost had the feeling that Mangino wants the quarterbacks to first master the simpler concepts of the passing game before adding the additional wrinkles...or so I hope.
So while Rohach looks like he'll get the first crack at the revolving door that is the quarterback position under Paul Rhoads, I'll be curious to see how the back up competition plays out. Lanning has all the tools physically and his arm lived up to the billing. The kid can really spin it and can make every throw in the playbook. He's got a fair amount of work to do in the accuracy department, but that will come with time.
Richardson is anyone's guess. I expected to see him splitting snaps with Rohach, but that wasn't the case at all. I'm not going to count him out just yet, but what happened to the guy that showed moxy and poise against Kansas and West Virginia in 2012 and early last season? I didn't see him on the field on Saturday.
This much-maligned unit was undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons for Iowa State's offensive struggles in 2013. Whether it was injuries, inexperience, or a position coach that, by all accounts, the entire unit hated; the titans of the trenches just didn't get it done last year. With the exception of Brock Dagel, who has missed time this spring due to a cut on his leg, this unit looked healthy and blocked with a purpose on Saturday.
I saw a line that looked faster to the point of attack and much to my delight, looked aggressive and nasty. The Iowa State defense racked up 14 sacks, but you have to consider the nature of those "sacks". The quarterbacks ignored open running lanes, knowing that they were off limits to contact and any time a defender came within sneezing distance, the play was blown dead.
As is always the case with offensive line play, the success of this unit will come down to health and consistency. The unit can ill afford another rash of injuries, especially to a guy like Tom Farniok. Daniel Burton looked solid at guard and I made a point of watching Jake Campos and liked what I saw, though he's still fairly raw.
A lot of good and bad here. First, the bad. It was not a banner day for Iowa State's top returning target, Quenton Bundrage. The big play threat had a major case of the dropsies, failing to reel in several passes deep into the secondary. When he wasn't stone-handing it, he showed some obvious frustration as he and Rohach failed to connect on fade and sideline routes, one of which I'd put on Bundrage as with the route he ran, he never gave Rohach a chance to get him the ball inbounds. I'm willing to write this off as just a bad day for Bundrage, but this a guy who has all-conference potential and has to consistently deliver in 2014. Let's hope he can.
Looking at what was good, you have to start with E.J. Bibbs and Jarvis West. Each excelled in the short passing game and although about 8 inches and 80 pounds separates the two, they were often used much the same way, which I think speaks volumes about Bibbs' versatility and Mangino's knack for identifying his playmakers.
West was back to his old ways, operating as a human jukebox, but really excelled at getting upfield, which is something he hasn't always been known to do. He was a special teams terror in 2013 and it looks as if the staff is going to try and bring some of that magic onto the offensive side of the ball this year.
Bibbs was featured prominently and rightfully so. Rhoads noted after the spring game that Bibbs has the ability to be a star, but it's up to the playcalling and the quarterbacks to give him a chance to showcase that skill. One thing is for sure; Iowa State's attack will be centered around getting Bibbs touches and they did a good job of that on Saturday.
Other pass catchers that stood out were walk-on Brett Medders, transfer D'vario Montgomery and sophomore P.J. Harris. Medders came up with several big third down grabs that moved the sticks and had an overall solid day. Montgomery didn't do much, but you can't help but be giddy about his size and physical talents. At 6'5" and 200+ pounds, he got into ISU's corners on several hitch routes and did an excellent job of using his body to shield the defender and get the ball. Harris had a relatively quiet day, but showed excellent burst on a jailbreak screen that saw him coming from one sideline to the other, leaving a wake of sprawling defenders behind him.
The running backs we're relatively quiet, but productive nonetheless. Aaron Wimberly is without question the top tailback in the program, but DeVondrick Nealy should prove to be a more than capable running mate. Redshirt freshman Tyler Brown and Rob Standard, or as I've come to call him, the "Stump of Thump" will each see carries on occasion. Brown looks to have another gear from a speed aspect, but could really stand to pack on about 10 pounds this summer. Standard looks like he will serve a role as a short yardage back. As long as Wimberly and Nealy stay healthy, this should be a solid unit.
You know, this wasn't quite the shitshow I expected. The defensive line is still patchwork at best and the reliability of the safeties is anyone's guess, but overall, the defense performed a little better than expected on Saturday. Starting up front, you don't lose Rodney Coe, David Irving and Brandon Jensen and get better. The Cyclones are young on the line and the casual fan had better buy a program, at least for the first few games because there's going to be a lot of "who was that?" and "who in the hell is number...".
On the bright side, Cory Morrisey looked less working class hero and more impact rush end on Saturday, which was nice. He and fellow bookend, Mitchell Meyers each recorded four "sacks". Former linebacker Darius White was another guy that managed to get some pressure. White ran primarily with the 2's but looks to be in the rotation come next fall.
The rest of the line was solid and I guess it was encouraging to see guys like Devlyn Cousin, Pierre Aka, Robby Garcia, Gabe Luna and Vernell Trent that at least looked like Big 12 defensive linemen, so that's encouraging, right?
Moving to the next level, if there's an all Big 12 linebacker on this team, I'm not seeing it. In each of Wally Burnham's five years in Ames, he's had at least one linebacker earn all conference recognition. That streak comes to an end this season. With Luke Knott still out and Jordan Harris still making the transition from junior college to Big 12 ball, this position group could be a far cry from serviceable. Jared Brackens was running with the second string, mainly because he was suspended for part of the spring, but he was absolutely everywhere on Saturday and I think he'll be back in the starting mix come August. Alton Meeks showed excellent size and solid sideline-to-sideline speed and looks like he could be a very good ball player, but it might be asking a bit much to think he's going to play at a high level in 2014 as a redshirt freshman. Harris can really fly, but at a generous 5'11" you have to wonder if he can consistently plug the middle. Burnham has managed to make linebacker play a strength during his time with Iowa State, but he's got his biggest challenge by far ahead of him this coming year.
In the secondary, I think Iowa State will get solid corner play out of Nigel Tribune and Sam E. Richardson, but the safety position is concerning to say the least. T.J. Mutcherson and Kamari Cotton-Moya ran with the first string, but these guys just haven't seen enough snaps and field time yet. This could be the weakest group of safeties in some time for Iowa State football.
How all of this relates to what we see in the fall is still anyone's guess, but for at least one Saturday things looked to be headed in the right direction. Be sure to leave your thoughts and observations in the comments below.