Yesterday I pumped some sunshine and wrote about the reasons to be optimistic heading in to the fall. Some of you enjoyed it, some of you found creative ways to tie it back to tire fires, and some of you did what I expected and were utterly flabbergasted that there was something positive to talk about with this program.
Rest assured then that this article is for the latter group of folks. Let's look at how the world is going to end in 2015.
Four year starter Tom Farniok is off to the Minnesota Vikings and leaves a glaring hole in the middle of the offensive line. As everyone remembers, Farniok's absence from the line up off and on the previous two seasons led to a significant drop off in line play. Until we see this team against real, live competition it's fair to expect the same thing in 2015.
That's not to say there isn't experience on the line, as a matter of fact it's quite the opposite. Jake Campos used last year as his learning experience and is now has a solid grasp on the left tackle position. Guard Daniel Burton didn't play in the spring, but quite possibly combines the most talent and experience on the line. Brock Dagel holds down the right tackle spot, and that makes three men that can be some form of All Big 12 performer before their career in Ames ends.
It's the lack of a starting center, which will either be JUCO Patrick Scoggins or senior Jamison Lalk, and the questionable depth behind the starters that will give a person heartburn. One note to keep in mind: when Burton comes back it likely slides Lalk to the left side and you have a starting offensive line group of Campos—Lalk—Scoggins—Burton—Dagel with guard Oni Omoile the first off the bench. That is not a bad group of six men.
But do the names Shawn Curtis, Wendell Taiese, Will Windham, Nick Severs, Ryan Glenn, Jacob Homa, Nick Fett, and Kory Kodanko. Any of those guys sound familiar to you?
Didn't think so.
They're the rest of the two/three deep in the spring, and only Taiese (Sr) and Fett (Jr) are upperclassmen. That's great for the future, but if the offensive line injuries that have plagued the team in the past rear their head again then it's a major case of déjà vu for the offense in 2015.
As Jer pointed out yesterday, we won't be hearing about the running back depth and what it means for the team this season. As a matter of fact this unit has swung from the "deepest" unit on offense to one of the "thinnest". The guys who will see the majority of the snaps are Tyler Brown, Martinez Syria, and Mike Warren and that's it.
I like Brown a lot, I think his running style is similar to Alexander Robinson's as he's one of the only backs from the previous few seasons that will actively try to set up his blocks as he gets to the second level. Warren has all the talent in the world according to the coaches, but is coming off shoulder surgery and has never taken a college snap. Syria saw limited action last season before suffering a concussion, and he'll be the short yardage back the offense has lacked since Jeff Woody's departure.
Any of these guys could probably carry the load full time and are no worse than DeVondrick Nealy, but similar to the line concerns above, I worry about depth and what happens six or seven games in to the season. Mark Mangino already struggles getting a running game going, so what happens if he's down to one or two healthy backs?
The Security Blanket
Catch everything tight end E.J. Bibbs is gone and thus Sam Richardson's biggest security blanket. Every quarterback needs one and Bibbs' ability to get open and get his hands on the ball not only moved the chains in 2014 but created a viable red zone threat. Who fills that role this year?
Is it primary blocking tight end Ben Boesen, maybe Justin Chandler or Cole Anderson? Reviews of Anderson out of spring football were high and he has a pretty big frame that will get him on the field. He's just a redshirt freshman though and expecting him to replace Bibbs' production would be foolish.
That puts all the more pressure on Allen Lazard to improve on a strong freshman campaign and for D'Vario Montgomery to become the consistent threat over the middle. Both men have the size to create mismatches in the middle of the field, and Montgomery was working at the Z position, frequently occupied by Jarvis West and Bibbs, in the spring.
In just over two seasons this went from the strongest unit on the field that boasted three NFL caliber starters to by far the weakest in Wally Burnham's tenure as defensive coordinator. How did this happen?
For starters you can't have transfers. A guy like Alton Meeks leaving so early in his career hurts you in the future. Jordan Harris not panning out last year hurt depth and experience but based on his spring game performance this could be a good thing by midseason. Harris looked and acted the part in the spring game, but now we'll see how he handles things against offenses he's never faced.
Then there are the reaches, which I feel is the most criminal part of Burnham's recruiting. Luke Knott should have never sniffed the line of scrimmage unless it was in a Nickel role, and now he's facing an uphill battle with a bad hip because of it. Jevohn Miller was the attempted reincarnation of Jake Knott, but never caught on to the nuances of playing outside. Once a move to the middle happened he looked like the reincarnation of Jesse Smith, which is very much a compliment. Who knows on Kane Seely, but he has two years to figure it out and did look better at the end of 2014 than at the beginning.
If you look at the depth chart you'll be frightened and come to the horrible realization that the front and back four could both turn out to be average or above average units. Yet it's the three men in the middle that could sink the entire defense. A lack of top talent on the depth chart is built on a foundation of little to no depth. As we've seen before, this is a recipe for disaster that's just waiting for the right time to strike and when it happens it'll get ugly and most likely cost a few coaches their jobs.
The last reason was a toss up between the schedule and the defensive line. Despite listing the line as a reason for optimism yesterday they still have a long ways to go before settling the nerves regarding the run defense. Alas, I feel the line will be solidly average this year and that's about all you can hope for.
The schedule on the other hand is decidedly not average.
The Good: Three of the first five at home before back to back games against TCU and Baylor.
The Bad: Two of the three at home are against in-state rivals. On paper Iowa State is probably better than both, at least offensively, but we've all been burned by these games before.
The Good: Schedule sets up for a 4-1 or 5-0 start.
The Bad: That means beating both in-state teams, winning on the road against Toledo or Texas Tech, or both. Toledo carved up Iowa State's defense last year, and while Tech is closer to Iowa State's level than the rest of the Big 12, it's hard to count on road wins over an evenly matched opponent.
The Good: An early season bye week allows for no slips against Kansas.
The Bad: It's the only bye week in the middle of the season.
The Good: Texas at home, which is a very winnable game.
The Bad: It's sandwiched between road dates with Baylor and Oklahoma, which are bookended by home games against TCU and Oklahoma State. The schedule picks up a lot of steam in mid-October and doesn't really ever let up.
This is the year of the 4 home/5 road game split in the Big 12 and it just so happens to be the year that is "bowl or bust" for the staff according to a number of sources. The 3-9 season in 2013 was also a 4/5 split and included a seven point loss to Tech on the road, a one point loss to Texas at home, and a four point loss to TCU at home. Three conference games decided by a combined 12 points helped keep Iowa State sitting at home in December and changed the narrative of Paul Rhoads' tenure in Ames.
Of course that isn't even touching the two single possession losses against UNI and Iowa earlier in the season.
The 2015 season mirrors the 2013 season in a lot of ways, so now the question is this: can Rhoads and his staff undo the ills of the past to bring this program back to where we expected it to be? How that question is answered will determine the next half decade of Iowa State football.