You may have heard this rumor, but spring football practice begins today. Yes, today. Easily overshadowed by the run in to March that the Cyclone men's and women's basketball team are making, and wrestling too, the cornerstone of the Iowa State Athletic Department is back in action for the next six weeks to develop the future players for a new regime.
After a busy off season that included the transfer of three players who either started or contributed significantly last season it now becomes time to focus on the faces that did choose to stay in Ames, who they are joined by, and what needs to happen before April 11th to call Paul Rhoads' seventh spring session a success. Here are the five key storylines that we'll be watching for throughout March and April.
Will the Defensive Line Become Average?
Defensive tackle Demond Tucker is on campus and full go for spring ball. Last year's start defensive line recruit, Terry Ayeni, has been given clearance to participate in spring drills after tearing his ACL last fall. Mitchell Meyers is out after his lymphoma diagnosis, but Gabe Luna is said to be healthy after a back injury.
On their own none of these guys are likely to set the world on fire, but they provide much needed depth and existing size to a unit that was short on both last season. Sometimes the key to good line play isn't so much about the talent, but the depth to allow multiple guys to play as close to full bore as possible for an entire game. If the Cyclones are to get back to the post season they need guys like Tucker, Ayeni, and Luna to finally see significant snaps to lessen the load on everyone else.
How Does the Offensive Line Look?
Gone is center Tom Farniok and right tackle Jacob Gannon, and in their place will be... someone. We know two spots are locked down with Jake Campos remaining at left tackle and Daniel Burton holding down one of the two guard spots. Burton has played on the right side his entire career, but a move to left would potentially create the strongest left side of the line we've seen since Kelechi Osemele was anchoring that side a few years ago. As we noted yesterday, Burton is out for spring ball, but he's without a doubt the best guard on the roster.
JUCO guard Patrick Scoggins is on campus and is currently slotted at center, but my bet is we'll see Jamison Lalk slide over from guard at some point if Scoggins struggles. Brock Dagel should hold down the right side tackle position, but will be limited this spring. That gives ample opportunity for the development of Ryan Glenn and Shawn Curtis.
Guys like Oni Omoile and Wendell Taiese will still be in the mix for back up spots, and this team will benefit greatly from finding a solid eight or nine contributors on the line, which is very possible with this group.
Does the Offense Change Without E.J. Bibbs?
Gone is catch everything, do everything tight end E.J. Bibbs. In his place are a set of unheralded tight ends named Ben Boesen, Justin Chandler, and Jake Ortale. Talk out of the Bergstrom is that Chandler has a high ceiling, but he has yet to play a Big XII snap and only time will tell.
However, with the loss of one man comes the gain of another. Quenton Bundrage returns from ACL surgery after tearing it four plays in to the 2014 season. Bundrage's timetable puts a return to the field possible right now, but I imagine he'll be limited throughout the spring but will make an appearance in the spring game on April 11th.
With the loss of DeVondrick Nealy does this mean Mark Mangino goes to more of a four wide set with Bundrage, D'Vario Montgomery, Jauan Wesley, and Allen Lazard all on the field at once? That's a dangerous set of mismatches as at least one of those bigger bodied wide receivers will be lined up inside. However, if the offensive line doesn't gel it absolutely destroys any hope of a reinvigorated running attack.
Who Emerges in the Defensive Middle?
A defensive back seven is usually only as good as the line in front of them, but great players back there can still cover up a lot of mistakes. Pair Kamari Cotton-Moya at free safety with Nigel Tribune and Sam E. Richardson at the corners and you have a solid foundation for the defensive backfield. But three key cogs are gone with the boot of strong safety T.J. Mutcherson and graduation of Jevohn Miller and Jared Brackens.
Miller's departure will be filled by former JUCO leading tackler Jordan Harris, who redshirted last season after struggling to grasp Wally Burnham's defense. Although Seely currently sits a top the depth chart, I have a hard time believing the staff can keep Harris off the field unless he struggles mightily in the spring.
Brackens will likely be replaced by Jarnor Jones, who fits the typical nickel mold with his 6'3" 210 pound size. Mutcherson's spot will be up for grabs between returning safeties Qujuan Floyd and Darian Cotton. JUCOs Mike Johnson and Jomal Wiltz could challenge for that strong safety spot or even for Richardson's spot at corner.
There's a lot of talent in the defensive backfield, and if Kane Seely could potentially slide to WILL and boot Luke Knott there might actually be a strength and mix of experience at every position behind the defensive line. To me this is the hottest and most important set of competitions on the field. Linebacker play was abysmal last year and overshadowed some of the gains the defensive backs made throughout the season. If Harris and Jones can stabilize the second level then this defense might be decidedly average.
Who is the Franchise?
Sam Richardson has the starting job locked up, and anyone who doubts it can just rewind the tape to the November 8th game in Lawrence and see how the passing game ground to a halt with Grant Rohach leading the way. Now, to digress for a minute...
Specifically to that game against Kansas, the rustiness of Mangino showed. Aaron Wimberly was hitting his stride at that point in the season, was quite literally most of the offense that day, and with the chips down late in the 2nd quarter Mangino refused to let him punch it in the end zone. To me the single biggest hurdle this offense has to overcome is the one by the man on the sidelines getting a little too comfortable with the arms of his quarterbacks. If the hot hand happens to be the guy toting the rock then feed him.
Back to the task at hand: who wins the back up quarterback job? Cylentbutdeadly is on record saying this team won't win another bowl game until Ankeny native Joel Lanning is at the helm, and with the results the prior two seasons it's hard to argue with that. Richardson took the next step in his game last season and needs to do it again this year to move the offense forward, and Rohach looked shaky in his limited action. Is this where Lanning finally jumps the man ahead of him and all but forces Mangino to make him the back up and even involve him in the offense somehow?
Given Richardson's battles with injuries in the past it's virtually guaranteed we'll see at least two quarterbacks this year, and perhaps that second man will be Lanning.
Check back over the next few weeks as we break down the positions individually and keep you up to date on the developments out of the
Great Cyclone Tire Fire Cyclone spring camp.