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Spring Practice: Burning Questions

It's spring time and that can mean only one thing! Baseball! Football!

Brett Deering

Hey there intrepid reader.  How are you?  I bet during Iowa State's run to the Sweet Sixteen you forgot about the other major revenue sport that is currently trying to get better for next season: baseball football.  That's right, it's spring time and a group of Cyclone players are practicing with the hopes of not sitting so far down the bench when the fall rolls around.

You've read the press coverage, listened to the coaches, and probably even watched some practice clips.  Well now I'm here to tell you just in time for the 2:00 PM start time for Saturday's Spring Game what you should watch for.

Obviously my too lazy to care well reasoned analysis is just my opinion, so feel free to tackle these questions yourself in the comments below.

Who Emerges at Quarterback?

Paul Rhoads and a quarterback competition go together like Dustin Hogue and self-promotional hair.

What was a two headed monster at last season's end has developed into a three headed one with redshirt freshman Joel Lanning taking snaps with the 1s during practice this spring.  Offensive Coordinator Mark Mangino has said he's like to trim his list to two and eventually down to one, but has provided no timetable for doing so.

A new system is a great equalizer in a competition like this and between that and Lanning's often raved about physical skill it's not hard to imagine him hanging with Sam Richardson and Grant Rohach.  However, he lacks starting experience and his ability to command an offense hasn't been discussed yet.

My money here is that Lanning is effectively out of the running at the end of the spring, but still sees snaps on Saturday.  Very similar to how Richardson was handled in 2012, which obviously means we'll see Lanning by the end of the year.

As for Richardson and Rohach it's going to be tough to see any separation of the two before August and I would not be surprised to see some doubt heading into the season opener against North Dakota State on August 31st.  Both have just enough differences in their skill set to keep things off balance.  Richardson is a better runner and thrower of the intermediate and deep routes.  Rohach developed during game action more than Richardson did and is more accurate underneath and to the sidelines.

As I alluded to above, I think the separating factor will be who can command the offense and emerge as the field general.  If that's the case I like what I've heard about Richardson in the past, but expect to see both a lot on Saturday and this fall.

Will a Two Running Back Rotation be Enough?

The rotation of Shontrelle Johnson, James White, Jeff Woody, DeVondrick Nealy, and Aaron Wimberly was an embarrassment of riches - on paper at least.  As it turned out the best performers at the end of last season were the two players who happen to still be in Cyclone uniforms this year: Nealy and Wimberly.

Shontrelle could have used a redshirt, White was non-existent, and Woody was still the short yardage back that never got opportunities because the Ken Pope's rotations were maddeningly unpredictable.

The plus side to having only two Big XII backs ready to play is no more weird rotations.  The negative is the obvious fact both have been hurt in their careers.  We know how slight Wimberly is, but Nealy's running style combined with his lack of concern for his body don't create a plan for long term, and healthy, success.

Both men can produce at a high level if healthy, but it's important to find those 3rd and 4th backs that can spell both when the yards get tougher at the end of the season.  Right now Rob Standard is third on the depth chart and apparently filling the role of Black Woody, but after him it drops to Tyler Brown, a 5'10", 179 pound redshirt freshman from Florida.  Can Brown do enough in the spring to be key for depth in the fall, or will Iowa State have to resort to using true freshman Michael Warren this season?

Can the Receivers Separate?

Literally and figuratively.  Quenton Bundrage returns after tying the single season school record for touchdowns (9) and is working on being more consistent in his role as #1 receiver.  Bundrage was incredibly streaky in 2013 and had touchdowns in only five games, with three of those games being multi-touchdown efforts. After Bundrage things get a little murky.

Justin Coleman is gone and with it is the role of "heady security blanket".  In his place will be a healthy Jarvis West but the other outside receiver is still up for grabs with the competition primarily being between transfer D'Vario Montgomery, Dondre Daley, and Tad Ecby.

Word out of practice is that Montgomery is not living up the four star billing and Daley has suffered a sprained ankle that is currently slowing him down.  It's important to note that finding the top 3 receivers isn't as important as finding a solid rotation of 6, but at least one has to be able to pull coverages away from Bundrage.  Perhaps that man is E.J. Bibbs.

After starting slow last season Bibbs came on strong late with almost half his catches and more than half his yards in the final four games.  He only had two touchdowns the entire season, and none after Texas Tech, but he was a constant red zone threat and had a clutch two point conversion in the win over West Virginia on what was Courtney Pantshittingham's final call as Iowa State offensive coordinator.

Mangino commented a few days ago that Bibbs needs to realize he can't run out and hope to find some green, and that the system is more disciplined than that, but you have to think Bibbs' skill set is going to buy him some leeway.  It's important that he keeps Mangino happy because his ability to stretch the field in both directions could be a huge difference between an average offense and one that carries the load.

Is There Anyone on Defense?

No. Next question.

Is Mark Mangino the Cure to the Offensive Problems?

On paper the Mangino hire was a home run for Rhoads.  Even in the Bergstrom facility it's a home run.  Here's a man who's won everywhere he's been, has been a former head coach, and knows how to run a program.  No doubt in my mind that Mangino is going to excel in his offensive installation and teach his players.  My concern with the hire is the fact Mangino hasn't been in the coordinator's booth on gameday in 14 years.

Although his fingerprints were all over the offense at Kansas it wasn't until Ed Warriner returned for his second stint with the Jayhawks in 2007 that the offense took off.  Warriner is now the co-offensive coordinator with Tom Herman at Ohio State.

Some of this could be coincidental, but some of it could be the fact that Warriner is an incredibly solid play caller.  The question here is whether or not Warriner was the architect of the offense or the man who followed directions when in Lawrence.

But then again, Mangino isn't a Mess.

What Does This Offense Look Like?

Great question reader!  What does this offense look like?  It's tough to find a lot of quality videos from Mangino's best years at Kansas but there are some things out there.

There's a 2007 highlight video set to the Foo Fighters.

It's nothing special but highlights two things that made the Jayhawk offense the most explosive in the country: great quarterback play and exceptional catches by the receivers.

If you watch the video closely you see time and time again that Todd Reesing is delivering the ball in front of his receivers and in to tight windows.  Also you see those receivers constantly out jumping defensive backs and just generally being aggressive with the ball.

Schematically it's hard to pick up on a lot of what this team did but thinking back to the years that Kansas was pushing around Iowa State I can remember that the array of slants and seam patterns were dizzying and once the offense found a go to target it opened up things for everyone else.  This is why it's so important that both Bundrage and Bibbs find a way to be "on" at the same time.

Then there are the trick plays.

Now I'm not going to pretend that trick plays are the foundation of an offense, but they do show a basic understanding of a key football idea: constraint. If you want a quick overview of constraint there's a good write up over at Down The Drive. Essentially constraint exists to make a defense pay for over playing your base plays.

So when teams would blitz the C gap in Messingham's two back set to slow down the outside running plays it would have been appropriate to throw in a few play actions to keep them honest, or a tunnel screen, but Mess.

As I mentioned above, I'm not so much concerned about the system as I am the play calling, but Mangino is widely regarded as one of the smartest coaches in the country, so I think his play calling works itself out over the first few games as he gets back into the swing of gameday.

Seriously, Can We Talk About the Defense?

No, you wouldn't want that.

So there's your long winded preview of the offense team heading into spring ball.  Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments and check out the Mangino Experiment in person at 2:00 PM on Saturday in Jack Trice Stadium.