New coach Matt Campbell will make his first appearance in Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday for the annual Cyclone Gridiron Club Spring Game. The forecast calls for sunny skies and is free to the public. You can read more about the game slated to start at 1:00 pm here.
Joining Campbell on the field will be a plethora of former Cyclones, some coming back to Ames for the first time since they donned the cardinal and gold. Among those returning are two of my childhood favorites - Sage Rosenfels and J.J. Moses.
The former players will be part of a "draft" selected by seniors on the current team as honorary captains, and there will be three guest coaches on each sideline. Campbell has made it a point to connect with former Cyclone greats, and even coaches - as he brought back Dan McCarney last week to address the team. It was truly an overwhelming experience to see coach Mac back in Ames, and he made his presence felt.
Also on the docket is fierce competition amongst those trying to crack the depth chart for the upcoming 2016 season.
ISU will be without star wide receiver Allen Lazard, as he is recovering from a hairline fracture in his hand, and left tackle Jake Campos who is in recovery mode after offseason hip surgery.
Now we will walk through a breakdown of the most important position battles, starting with most significant
Position Battles to Watch
The biggest question mark going into this season is the attrition of the offensive line. Gone are four starters from last year, and the fifth is on the mend - Campos. The good thing for ISU is they have one of the top teachers at this position in Tom Manning, who replaced all five starters last year at Toledo and won Offensive Line Coach of the Year by FootballScoop.
Nick Fett will be the starter at one of the guard spots, and Jaypee Philbert at tackle. After that, it is a big question mark. Manning likes to move players around at different spots, and he will have his work cut out for him. Incoming JUCO transfer Karson Green can play both center and guard, and so can Patrick Scroggins. Other names to keep in mind are: Shawn Curtis, Bryce Meeker, and a player who has been praised by this coaching staff for his hard work this spring - Julian Good-Jones.
Another spot on the depth chart that has inexperience are the linebackers. The clear-cut leader of this group is MLB Jordan Harris, who will be the signal caller for the defense. He returns along with Brian Mills and Willie Harvey. Harvey showed glimpses of talent on the field in his freshman campaign, and has blazing speed. In Defensive Coordinator Jon Heacock's 4-2-5 system, he requires sideline-to-sideline speed, and Harvey and Reggan Northrup are perfect players for that requirement.
Gone is the Sack Mamba Dale Pierson and his 8.5 sacks from a year ago, and in steps a number of players to fill that role. The player with the most upside is senior Jhaustin Thomas and his 6-foot-6 frame. Gabe Luna looks to come back healthy, and J.D. Waggoner and Darius White will fight for playing time. All showed glimpses last year, and will be key in the pass-rush if this defense wants to be better in 2016.
Secondary coach D.K. McDonald has been dealt a winning hand with a surplus of talent at the cornerback position. He will have quite the battle with upperclassmen and JUCO transfers coming in though. Senior Nigel Tribune will continue to be the lockdown corner of this group, alongside Brian Peavy, who had a fantastic freshman season. Jay Jones made the switch from nickel to corner, and his 6-foot-3 body should come in handy with tall Big 12 receivers. D'Andre Payne started his career at Tennessee, and has now found a home in Ames. He has been talked up by this coaching staff, and will definitely see playing time.
Either way you shake it, this is a position that has a boatload of talent and no lack of depth. That is key for a pass-happy Big 12, and ISU can use multiple sets and packages to rotate players.
Demond Tucker heads this group, coming off a stellar season in which he won Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, and will slide over from nose to defensive tackle, as ISU will play a four-man front. It will be immensely important to find someone to emerge next to Tucker, and it may come from a rotation of players. Those names to consider are Vernell Trent, Pierre Aka, and Bobby Leath. It seems like Aka has been ranted and raved upon for five years, and this is his time to show up. Other players who could vie for playing time are Terry Ayeni and Robby Garcia.
Backup Running Back
Mike Warren will be the bell-cow rusher, and the sophomore stud will look to improve upon his 1,339 rushing yards from a season ago. More importantly is who will take over the backup role vacated by the offseason departure of Joshua Thomas. Names to consider are Sheldon Croney and Mitchell Harger. Croney has more upside, but is coming off a hand injury, and Harger is a journeyman who could steal some carries. Look for this to be an interesting battle for the number two spot.
Last year the tight end position was non-existent, and Campbell and his staff have made it clear that they want to get the ball more to the big guys. Two names that stand out are JUCO transfer Clifford Fernandez and Justin Chandler. Both stand over 6-foot-3 and have displayed a skill-set that is tailor made for the Big 12.
I will leave you with this scintillating promo video. Hope to see you in Ames on Saturday for the Spring Game!