2016 was a dawn of a new era for Cyclone football. Matt Campbell has brought energy and optimism early in his time in Ames.
Yet, fans saw some glaring holes that still needed to be filled. For instance, the depth on defense was lacking and provided weak points for other teams to attack. We saw a young team making mistakes such as penalties and miscues that may have otherwise turned into points, and basic familiarity with the systems in place just weren’t there right away.
We saw many examples for why the Matt Campbell era is going to be different than previous regimes. The build up in the off-season had more of a positive trend to it and the recruiting effort was off the charts, which led many fans to believe the previous coach when he told us that Iowa State would go bowling in 2016. But that didn’t come true.
However, I’m here to tell you why the Cyclones will be going to a bowl game in 2017.
The biggest reason for optimism lies on the offensive side of the ball. Iowa State is set to return 92 percent of their offensive scoring from a year ago, losing only Dondre Daley and Mitchell Harger. The Cyclone offense showed it can be more lethal than in previous seasons and they will look to continue that trend in 2017. It all starts with the quarterback position.
Iowa State brings back a quarterback in Jacob Park who gained more confidence and poise as last season progressed. Park finished the season with a passer rating of 138.5, which was the highest passer rating for an Iowa State QB since Bret Meyer when he posted a 138.9 in 2005. (If you count the full season. Other QBs have had higher ratings with less attempts). Park also threw for 1,791 yards and tossed 12 touchdowns in the process. Those totals are down compared to other quarterbacks in the Big 12, but Iowa State wants to emphasize running the ball to be more of a balanced offense as opposed to being an air raid system. With the quarterbacks that Campbell has put in place, the ISU offense isn't built to be your typical Big 12 “air it out” type of team.
We can’t forget about Joel Lanning either. He threw for 1,290 yards and nine touchdowns and transformed into more of a running threat as the season went on. Heck, he ran for five touchdowns against Texas Tech alone. He finished the season with 11 total rushing touchdowns, which is considerably more than the next closest, running back Mike Warren, who only had three. If Matt Campbell and Tom Manning can dial up some packages for Joel next season, Iowa State’s offense will have an additional element that opposing defenses would have to gameplan against.
Park and Lanning contribute most of the scoring load, but they aren’t the only ones coming back that give Iowa State an advantage. Allen Lazard announced after the season that he would forgo the NFL and return for his senior year. He tallied more than 1,000 receiving yards and snagged seven touchdowns. After getting some feedback from NFL scouts, my guess is that Lazard will come back faster and primed for an even bigger year in 2017.
Another reason to believe the offense will be more potent is that Deshaunte Jones, who was the second leading receiver on the team as a freshman, will be back for his sophomore campaign. Expect him to have a bigger role in the offense. With his speed and playmaking ability, it’ll be hard for Tom Manning not to get the ball in his hands. Remember, Jones played some quarterback in high school. There were some plays in the offense last season where they let him throw the ball. Chances are we’ll see more wrinkles like that next season.
The backfield behind our quarterbacks will be loaded. Iowa State will have a healthy Mike Warren coming back, who should be motivated to return to the level of performance of his freshman season. David Montgomery, who emerged in the second half of the season, will also be back to help shoulder the load with Warren and give the Cyclones a two-headed rushing machine. Kene Nwangwu will also be returning. His main focus last season was kick returning with the occasional run package, especially when both Warren and Montgomery were dinged up. He gives Tom Manning a nice third option.
To be able to run the ball, Iowa State will have to piece together another offensive line. Julian Good-Jones will be the only returning starter from the 2016 season, which is a cause for concern. However, there’s some good news, as Jake Campos will come back from sitting out last season with a broken leg. Pending a medical redshirt, he will potentially have two more seasons in the cardinal and gold. Word is that he’s put in a ton of work and is bigger and stronger now. For the remaining O-line spots, expect some JUCO offensive lineman to be plugged in if Campbell can get them to Ames, otherwise newcomers like redshirt freshman Sean Foster could jump in for playing time.
If there was reason for concern to dishearten the bowl aspirations for 2017, it would be the defense. The depth issues led to many breakdowns and holes in the defense as the 2016 season wore on. But it isn’t all doom and gloom for the Cyclones. Iowa State just received some much-needed help up front with two major JUCO signings in Ray Lima and Matt Leo. Both are in the top 100 for JUCO players making the jump to Division 1 in the class of 2017 and both are expected to make an immediate impact.
Joining them on signing day in February will be Kamilo Tongamoa and Kam White, both of which are verbal commits for Iowa State at this time. Tongamoa is one of the top defensive players in the 2017 JUCO class and will more than likely be a day one starter on the defensive line. Kam White will be a freshman next fall and many expect him to come in and start day one. His addition will only add to one of Iowa State’s strengths in the secondary.
Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock has a great group of defensive backs coming back in 2017. Brian Peavy is not only one of Iowa State’s best overall defenders, but he is also the top cornerback on the roster. He was the third-leading tackler on the team and we should expect another solid season from him his junior year as he will have another offseason to improve. D’Andre Payne also returns in the secondary, which is great because he lined up at pretty much every defensive back position this past season. With Jomal Wiltz departing, expect Payne to be the other primary corner opposite Peavy, which will give Iowa State a nice corner duo for 2017.
Reggan Northrup and Brian Mills are Iowa State’s top linebackers coming back in 2017. Northrup showed he could play well at times this past season, but injuries and inconsistency kept him from really gaining traction. Mills is going to be more of a run-stopping linebacker, but his speed just wasn’t there yet this past season against the air raid offenses in the Big 12. Pair those two with potential playmakers coming in the 2017 class at linebacker and Iowa State definitely has a chance to correct a weakness from the 2016 season.
It wouldn’t be an off-season without some drama. There are rumblings that Kamari Cotton-Moya may not be return for his senior season. Cotton-Moya had offseason surgery on his shoulder, which is leading to some serious considerations about where he will play his final year of eligibility. Right now, insiders are saying it’s a 50/50 chance that he returns. Cotton-Moya was the leading tackler on the defense in 2016 and was the type of player that gave defensive coordinator John Heacock diversity on the field by being able to offer run support. If Cotton-Moya does in fact decide to return, the secondary will be as strong as it was last season.
Iowa State’s depth was an issue on defense last season, but depth takes 2-3 recruiting classes to build. Campbell has shown an emphasis for recruiting the defensive side of the ball thus far. If some of the players who will be signing in February can contribute right away, the defense will take a step forward in 2017 and help keep pressure off the offense to score every drive.
As for special teams, Iowa State fans know there’s a glaring hole at kicker. Recently, Coach Campbell may have found Cole Netten’s replacement. Oregon State grad transfer Garrett Owens gave Iowa State his word on enrolling in classes in January and he plans to join the football team as well. Owens is a 71% career kicker at Oregon State and he was 10-17 in the 2016 season. That’s a 20% drop from Netten’s senior season, but it gives Iowa State another option. We may see Eric Sylvester get the nod. He worked with Netten all of last season, and there’s no reason to believe that he can’t handle the duties.
What’s most exciting on the special teams side of things is that Iowa State will have Kene Nwangwu back returning kicks. We all saw the explosive return ability he has. If he can improve on his 26.4 yards per return, he will put Iowa State’s offense in great field position all season long in 2017.
Iowa State certainly has more positives on paper than it’s had in previous years, which gives me reason to believe there’s a bowl game in sight for next season. ISU was three late-game blunders away from making a bowl game in 2016. If Campbell can continue to mentor and push this team in the right direction, this time next season we will be sounding the sirens in some other city than Ames at a bowl game.