Back in August we ranked all the units from worst to best. We didn't dole out grades or anything like that but illustrated where the strong and weak points of this year's Cyclones fall. Now with six games under their belts, including three in the Big XII, it's time to look at how these positions stack up halfway through the 2014 season.
Our preseason rankings of units, from best to worst:
1. Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
2. Offensive Line
3. Running Backs
8. Defensive Line
And now on to our grades, ranked from best to worst as well.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Right off the bat you're going to see that no unit on Iowa State's team has earned an A rating. Simply put, this team has yet to bring its A game throughout the season. Every unit has made mistakes, disappeared in games, or just flat out not done their jobs for certain stretches.
We start with the receivers and tight ends because they've been the most consistent group despite losing two of their best threats in Quenton Bundrage (ACL, season) and Jarvis West (Ankle, probable for Saturday). E.J. Bibbs was named to ESPN's Midseason All Big XII Team and has accumulated a team high 22 catches for 194 yards and four touchdowns.
Freshman Allen Lazard has stepped in and already looks like the future of the offense at the X receiver position, and last week's emergence of D'Vario Montgomery is great for an offense looking for more than one threat.
Credit Mark Mangino's playbook as these guys have found themselves open time after time this season. There were duds against physical defenses like Baylor and Oklahoma State, but even in the Baylor game the receivers found space but were rarely given an opportunity to execute given the problems up front.
A young unit is looking better and better every week. We knew what we would get with Nigel Tribune, and his continued growth is evident each game. What has come as a surprise is the consistency Sam E. Richardson is playing with on the other side. He's still targeted heavily due to his height, but he has fought consistently to keep his receivers from breaking free and is with them nearly every step of the way. With another season and a half to go for Richardson it may be possible that we have yet to see his ceiling.
Safeties T.J. Mutcherson and Kamari Cotton-Moya are looking like stars in the making and may be the best safety combo that Iowa State has had since Nik Moser and Steve Paris.
As will be a theme through the rest of these rankings, this grade could easily be split by two levels of performance. Cole Netten and Colin Downing have been lights out this year with both stabilizing a kicking game that has seldom looked stable under Paul Rhoads.
However, the kick and punt return games are sorely hurting against big legged kickers and the absence of West, respectively. This ranking probably ends up the highest had it not been for the special teams gaffes against Oklahoma State and the continued shakiness of the kick coverage team after Tyreek Hill's touchdown. That said, this is one of the easier areas on the field to clean up and it's likely special teams will be the difference in another game or two this season.
Yes, that grade is for Sam B. Richardson, and yes, it's deserved despite his record performance against Toledo. Toledo boasts one of the worst pass defenses in the country and Richardson had went a combined 34-78 for 412 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception in the two weeks prior to playing the Rockets.
Quarterback play is significantly influenced by a lot of other factors such as offensive line performance, the running game, receivers hanging on to balls, and quality decision making. We could very well be witnessing one of the best quarterbacks in Iowa State history playing right now but you wouldn't know it due to the inconsistency of those around him. As a whole, Sam has executed about as well as anyone can hope so far this season. He's hitting 60% of his passes, has a 5 TD to 2 INT ratio, and is spending more time in the pocket when given a chance.
Performances against Baylor and Oklahoma State show that he's not in the upper echelon of Big XII quarterbacks yet. He has half a season to turn that around and will be facing some of the weaker Big XII defenses when the calendar turns to November.
You won't find a bigger fan of Richardson than me, but at this point his play has been slightly above average and how he goes is exactly how the rest of the offense will go.
A lot of you will think this ranking deserves to be lower, and I typically would have a hard time disagreeing, but the quality of the offensive line has all but neutered the talent possessed by DeVondrick Nealy and Aaron Wimberly.
Nealy and Wimberly have had their flashes of brilliance this year. Wimberly started hot against North Dakota State and scored on the Cyclones' first possession, and Nealy had the game changing touchdown against Iowa and looked good against Toledo.
However, there are the parts we forget about. The dropped balls, the missed holes, the difficulty in finding a short yardage back. On the plus side, Mangino has seen the need to get yards in tough situations and has found ways to earn a first down or score a touchdown when earlier in the year the offense was better served passing on 3rd and short.
As it is, this unit is average right now and is linked directly to the offensive line performance. As the season wears on I expect both the running backs and offensive line to grade out higher.
This could have been a resounding F after the North Dakota State game, but the linebackers have come around as of late and it's all been predicated on Jevohn Miller's move to MIKE linebacker. This has freed Miller up to run laterally and look for the ball carrier rather than worry about his fits in the running and passing game. Miller still struggles in pass coverage, but has more than made up for it by not getting trucked every time a team runs in his direction.
Luke Knott has been quiet and solid, and that's about what you can expect off a sophomore coming off hip surgery. He's always in the right spot, plays bigger than his size, and will continue to be a stable part of the defense for the following two years.
If we could put Drake Ferch's mind in Jared Brackens' body we'd have the second coming of Arthur Brown. Ferch is always in the right spot, but his slight frame makes it hard to hold up against Big XII offenses, and Brackens plays bigger than his size, but usually three feet out of position.
This group has steadily improved but still has a long ways to go to become a unit worth talking about. It's not all their fault, as some of their performance is related to...
How can a team that ranks sixth in the Big XII in sacks be rated a D? Simple, they can't stop the run. Whether it be on first down, second down, or short yardage on 3rd down this defensive line is hurting without Rodney Coe and David Irving in the middle. Their dismissals have illustrated how difficult it is to recruit and win in the trenches in Ames, and thank god for the return of Brandon Jensen or this team would be giving up 300 yards per game on the ground (they're currently giving up 212).
If you want a stat for how bad this line has been on the ground then look no further:
Teams are averaging 4.8 yards per rush on 3rd down against the Cyclones. That's 268 rushing yards on 56 carries on 3rd down and 58% of 3rd down plays have been rushes against this defense.
Harsh? Yes. Too harsh given the injuries on the line? Probably. The fact is your production is a product of your environment and this is the hand the unit has been dealt. There are bright spots, Tom Farniok for one, and Jake Campos looks like the future at left tackle already.
But for some reason, whether it be lack of size, lack of skill, lack of understanding of schemes, or something else; the line has failed time and time again to get the running attack to be anything more than a time waster between passes.
The offensive line is an intricate set of moving parts that gets better as the season wears on, and they'll face some deplorable run defenses with Texas and Texas Tech on the horizon. Things could very well get back on track in the latter half of the season, but for a unit that was supposed to be a strength this year it's hard to see their performance as anything other than disappointing six games in.
- Much has been made of Iowa State's second half tempo against Toledo. As I and others have stated, this is a "sometimes food". Tempo isn't this team's identity because they're not athletic enough on defense to play 35 minutes a game, and the plays being run to start the 2nd half were the same plays that were being executed in the 1st. That second part is the most key. You don't ramp up the speed if your quarterback isn't ready for it, and the fact Richardson was imploring the coaches to do it is a great sign of his growing confidence with the rest of the offense. When the time is right the tempo will be used, otherwise get used to continuing to try to grind teams down and shorten the game.
- Not enough can be said about the evolution of the offense. On paper they're relatively the same as they were from North Dakota State to now. Run the ball some to keep defenses honest, and pass to gain the majority of your yards. However, Mangino recognized the need to solve the short yardage problems and addressed it. It's not explosive, but it doesn't have to be. This team can move the ball as long as they move the chains, and a sign of a good offensive coordinator is finding what works for your offense once the lights are on and shining.
- Passing to set up the run is going to happen more as the season wears on, but there will be opportunities against the bottom four (excluding Iowa State) run defenses in the conference. Kansas, West Virginia, Texas, and Texas Tech all round out the bottom half in run defense in the conference and provide perfect opportunities to get the offensive line and running backs on the same page.
- Using Richardson in the run game is a must to manufacture yards, and the speed option and quarterback keepers were a good way to put the ball in the hands of one of your best runners. It's not going to be "the" thing for the offense to do, but if Mangino thinks he can pick up four yards on first down with a quarterback keeper then you bet he's going to do it.
- The defense will go as far as the line allows it. The pass rush has been the best we've seen under Rhoads, but to get there they have to slow down opposing running attacks. Texas ranks 9th in the conference in rushing, but will try to remedy that with a healthy dose of Johnathan Gray on Saturday. Keeping teams behind schedule on either 1st or 2nd down will make this defense look a lot better than we've seen, and for evidence look no further than the 1st half of the Oklahoma State game when they did exactly that.