Iowa State concluded its first spring under new head coach, Matt Campbell, on Saturday afternoon as the Cardinal unit triumphed over the Gold team, 10-6, in front of more than 15,000 fans. Between the success on the recruiting trail, the change of leadership and some fantastic April weather, fans left Jack Trice Stadium with a sense of excitement around the program.
It wasn't a true first team versus second team format and several starters sat out due to injuries, but we were able to get a great first look at what Campbell has in store for the program and saw many of the younger guys on the roster hit the field for extended action for the first time.
Heading into the summer workouts and especially coming off a 3-9 season, however, there are still a number of questions we have about this team going forward, namely being are they good enough to reach a bowl game. The lingering questions below will ultimately dictate whether or not this team can reach the post season for the first time since 2012.
1. How Concerned Should We Be With the Offensive Line?
Campbell inherited an offensive line that has to replace more than 100 combined starts. It's easily the most unstable position group heading into the summer with only Jake Campos returning as a starter. Jacob Dunning, Jaypee Philbert and Nick Fett are the only other returners who have seen meaningful snaps. After that, things get dicey.
Redshirt freshman, Julian Good-Jones, earned the start at center on Saturday and the staff is high on his ability. At 6'5" 270-pounds, though, Good-Jones has some work to do in the weight room this summer to get to a heavier playing weight.
Patrick Scoggins is another guy who could earn a starting job. The redshirt senior missed the 2015 campaign and stands only 6'1" 293-pounds, but he brings experience to the table and versatility to the interior of the offensive line.
Iowa State inked several junior college prospects in Oge Udeogu and Karson Green for the 2016 class and both may be thrust into immediate duty given the uncertainty throughout the group.
What's perhaps most concerning is that Iowa State surrendered 42 sacks last year, which was the most in the Big 12. With what appears to be the makings of a patchwork unit, is this group going to be good enough to open up holes for Mike Warren and keep Joel Lanning on his feet?
2. Is Depth A Bigger Issue Than We Realize?
A number of offensive starters sat out of Saturday's scrimmage, including arguably the three best players on that side of the ball in Mike Warren, Allen Lazard and Jake Campos. What we saw was a mostly unfamiliar offensive unit.
Warren was held out as a result of a coach's decision, mainly because the offensive staff wanted to see what they had behind the 1,300-yard rusher. Walk-on, Mitchell Harger, carried the ball 15 times for 48 yards and caught 4 passes for 43 yards. Sheldon Croney was the only scholarship running back that played and he gained a measly 16 yards on 7 carries. The versatile Trever Ryen also took 3 carries for 19 yards. Campbell signed 2 running backs that will have an excellent chance to crack the depth chart come fall camp.
Under center, Joel Lanning has responded nicely to his first off-season as an incumbent starter, but where does Iowa State turn if Lanning goes down? Zeb Noland would appear to be #2 on the depth chart and physically, he certainly looks the part. Lanning is a physical runner, but you have to wonder if the staff alters that approach knowing that there's a true freshman waiting in the wings. Now, Jacob Park, who was once enrolled at Georgia will certainly get a crack at things, but doesn't arrive until this summer.
3. Are There Enough Reliable Playmakers?
We know that Warren and Lazard can produce and that the pair will likely be among the best in the Big 12, but who else does Iowa State have on the offensive side of the ball that can move the sticks?
Starting with the receiving corps (since we know there's virtually nothing behind Warren in the back field), Dondre Daley, Jauan Wesley and Ryen all were factors in the passing game a season ago. Daley, who caught 24 passes last fall, snagged Saturday's only touchdown on a 47-yard haul from Lanning. Wesley was Iowa State's third-leading receiver in 2015 (30 receptions) and caught 2 touchdowns. Ryen caught 18 balls while also rushing the ball 16 times last year. Gone though, is big-play threat, Quenton Bundrage. The Florida native snagged 13 touchdowns over the course of the last two seasons and nearly 90 receptions. Can one of the three guys above step in and emerge as a true #2 receiver behind Lazard?
One spot where the Cyclones could certainly use more production is the tight end position. Iowa State tight ends combined to catch a total of 6 balls last year and neither Ben Boesen, nor Justin Chandler found the end zone. Boesen has graduated, but Chandler returns and will need to be much more of a weapon entering his senior campaign. Iowa State also brought in junior college transfer, Cliff Fernandez with the 2016 class. One of the headliners of the class, however, is 6'7" Chase Allen. The highly coveted prospect out of Missouri might be able to see time as a true freshman. This group doesn't need a player the caliber of E.J. Bibbs (though that would be nice), but the tight end position wasn't even a threat a year ago, which simply has to change.
4. Is Joel Lanning Ready To Be "The Man"?
Lanning certainly looked the part on Saturday and Campbell even mentioned that he was encouraged by the play and leadership of the junior. Lanning completed 11-19 passes for 161 yards and threw the touchdown strike to Daley for the winning score.
There were moments where Lanning had the look of a high-level signal caller during his first season of action, but he struggled with his accuracy and threw all 4 of his interceptions over the course of the season's last 4 games, including 2 in the finale at West Virginia. Still Lanning threw for 10 touchdowns and was Iowa State's second leading rusher with 330 yards on the ground (he also had 4 rushing scores).
Now a junior and with 5 starts under his belt, Lanning is going to have to prove that he can match the production of some of the nation's best quarterbacks that lead the prolific offenses of the Big 12. We know he has the arm to make every throw in the playbook and as a dual-threat, he gives Tom Manning another weapon in the Cyclone attack, but in his first year of a new system, can he put it all together?
1. Who Replaces Dale Pierson As A Pass Rushing Threat?
Pierson was arguably the best pass rushing threat to come through the Cyclone program since Jason Berryman. As a senior, Pierson racked up 12.5 tackles for loss and tied for 4th in the conference with 8.5 sacks.
With Pierson gone, the rest of the returning defensive line combined for 8 sacks total, 6 of which came from Demond Tucker (more on him later). Jhaustin Thomas should be able to lock down a starting gig at one of the defensive end positions and with a full off-season under his belt, you have to think he'll come into 2016 much more prepared after only hitting campus in August a season ago. The 6'6" 265-pound senior notched 1 sack last year and 2.5 tackles for loss.
On the other side, it's anyone's guess. Gabe Luna likely would have seen the field plenty had he not been injured, but J.D. Waggoner could also challenge for a starting role after recording a sack and 3 tackles for loss last year.
For the first time in years, Iowa State was actually a decent pass rushing team, netting 30 sacks (6th in the conference). The Cyclones were running a 3-4 scheme, however, and are switching to a more traditional 4-man front this year. Does that result in a drop in Iowa State's sack numbers?
2. Can Jordan Harris Make "The Leap"?
Under the tutelage of Paul Rhoads and Wally Burnham, Iowa State continuously had great linebackers leading the way for often overmatched defenses. Starting with Jesse Smith and continuing with the elite duo of Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, who passed the torch to Jeremiah George, the linebacker position was often one of the few bright spots defensively.
Unfortunately, the linebacker corps has been a glaring weakness since George graduated, but Harris just might have the game to change that. Harris was 3rd on the team with 70 tackles a season ago while also racking up 5 tackles for loss, 1 sack and 1 interception.
On Saturday, he had a game-high 6 tackles, including 2 tackles for loss. Defensive coordinator, Jon Heacock, is employing a 4-2-5 look, meaning that Harris is going to have to be a force in the middle of the defense. After initially redshirting out of the junior college ranks, this will be Harris' third year in the program and the staff just might need a monster year out of him to field a capable defense.
3. Does The Cyclone Defense Have Legitimate Talent?
After years of serving as a perennial whipping boy while the star-studded offenses of the Big 12 marched up and down the field against the overmatched Cyclones, is 2016 the year that Iowa State turns the tide?
That might be asking a bit much, but there are playmakers on this defense. Starting up front, Demond Tucker was simply unblockable at times last year, recording 6 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. The human dorm fridge, Tucker stands only 6'0" tall, but is a stout 300 pounds. He's joined inside by an intriguing prospect in Bobby Leath. At 6'3" 310 pounds, Leath has the body to be a run stopper, but was another guy who failed to get to campus on time and took time to see the field. That pair, along with senior Pierre Aka (6'4" 293 pounds), give Heacock good size up front and especially with Tucker, all-conference potential inside.
We already highlighted Harris, but he'll have help with running mate, Willie Harvey. The sophomore was 4th on the team in tackles last year and recorded 2 sacks. The staff has been impressed with his play this spring and along with Harris, they should form a nice starting duo. Also, keep an eye on sophomore, Reggan Northrup. His brother led Florida State in tackles, but the younger Northrup has great speed and showed flashes of his potential last year.
Arguably the strongest position group on the team, the defensive backfield is stocked full of playmakers. Kamari Cotton-Moya was injured toward the end of 2015, but the former Defensive Freshman of the Year in the Big 12 is recovered and made 5 tackles on Saturday out of the strong safety position.
The cornerback position should be interesting to watch. Brian Peavy led Iowa State in tackles last year (82) and interceptions (2) and has locked down one of the starting jobs. Opposite Peavy, Jomal Witlz and Nigel Tribune figure to battle it out for the other starting role. Tribune was once thought to be the best corner on the roster, but had a subpar junior season and Wiltz found himself on the field more and more as the season wore on.
There's also Jarnor Jones, who has been moved to cornerback, but at 6'3" 209-pounds, figures to be a guy that Heacock can move around the defense. Jones struggled with consistency as a junior, but still finished with 49 tackles, 7 tackles for loss and 2 sacks in 2015.
Iowa State ranked 8th in the league in total defense and scoring defense a year ago, surrendering 453.4 yards and 32.7 points per game. The Cyclones were 9th in the Big 12 in opponent's 3rd down conversion rate and also dead last in the conference when it came to turning opponents over, managing just 13 takeaways. Does Heacock have enough to work with to build a capable defensive unit?