Over the next few weeks and leading up to the kick off of the 2016 season, we're going to talk about each position group on the Cyclone football team while also comparing that respective position group to the rest of the conference.
We'll start things off today with the most important position on the field, which also just so happens to be the most beleaguered position group within the Iowa State program - the quarterback position.
Acquiring top-end talent to lead the Cyclone offense has never been an easy proposition for Cyclone coaches, whether it be Dan McCarney, Gene Chizik or Paul Rhoads. Matt Campbell didn't exactly inherit a strong stable of skill and experience when he took the ISU job, but he at least inherited a returning starter in junior, Joel Lanning.
The Ankeny native earned his first career start in a 24-0 shutout win over Texas and remained atop the depth chart for the last four games after that debut win. For the season, Lanning passed for 1,247 yards, connecting on 55.4% of his throws while accumulating 10 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. If you're into such things, his passer efficiency rating of 122.7, put him 9th in the league, just ahead of the man he replaced, Sam B. Richardson.
Iowa State hasn't had a QB earn all conference accolades of any kind since Bret Meyer earned an honorable mention nod following the 2005 campaign. Given the annual wealth of talent across the Big 12, that's not exactly as discouraging as it may sound, but it may be telling as to why the Cyclone offense has lagged behind its conference peers for much of the past decade.
Then again, one could argue (and by "one" I mean just about anyone who's watched ISU football) that the reasons Iowa State has failed to keep pace with the high-powered offenses of the Big 12 extend far beyond just the quarterback position. Whether it be coaching, scheme, or lack of high-end skill position technicians, the Cyclone offense just hasn't been able to consistently move the ball for some time.
Campbell brings a strong offensive pedigree with him to Ames and for the first time in years, Iowa State will actually feature an offense with some serious talent in both the backfield and on the outside in Mike Warren and Allen Lazard. The question remains, however, whether or not Lanning has the wherewithal to lead Iowa State out of the Big 12's offensive cellar.
The last time the Cyclones made it through a season with one quarterback starting every game was 2008, but even during the '08 grind, Phillip Bates still managed to split some time with Austen Arnuad. Truthfully, you'd have to go back to 2006 for the last time that one signal caller (Meyer) managed to truly own the position.
If that previous paragraph doesn't underscore the importance of depth at this position, I don't what else will.
Lanning may be a solid incumbent, but chances are, especially given Iowa State's history at the quarterback position, somebody else is going to have to take some meaningful snaps this season. So yes, depth is crucial under center (or in the shotgun formation).
Campbell has landed some intriguing prospects to push Lanning. Zeb Noland graduated high school early and enrolled at Iowa State for the spring semester, gaining valuable snaps with the second team offense. While physically impressive for a true freshman (6'3" 215-pounds), Noland will have to hold off Jacob Park. The former 4-star recruit spent a year at Georgia before leaving the program and sat out football altogether during the fall of 2015.
The learning curve will be steep for both Noland and Park, but neither is being asked to take game snaps in the opener.
Stacking Up Against the Big 12
This may come as a shock, but the Big 12 is once again loaded at the quarterback position. As has become customary, the league will feature a dazzling array of field operators, led by reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, Baker Mayfield.
But Mayfield won't go unchallenged at the top. Patrick Mahomes, Seth Russell and Mason Rudolph also return and will set the standard for the conference's top offenses. The depth and strength of the league's signal callers though, extends beyond that top group. TCU is the only school that does not return a starting quarterback from last season, but even they gain the services of Kenny Hill, who started the season for Texas A&M in 2014.
A quick look at the stats from the top returning quarterbacks in the Big 12:
*Category leaders bolded
|Games||Att||Comp||Comp%||TD||INT||Yards||YPG||Pass Eff.||Rush Att||Rush Yds||TD|
As you can see, there's no shortage of talent across the conference. Where Joel Lanning fits into that picture, I'm not really sure. The one perceived edge that Lanning would figure to have as a young and developing QB, his dual threat ability, even looks average when compared to some of the more seasoned quarterbacks around the league. This is not the year that Iowa State finds a quarterback back on the post season awards list.
Overall, Iowa State projects to have a better quarterback situation certainly than Kansas and while Joe Hubener returns for Kansas State and they regain the services of Jesse Ertz (was hurt on 2nd play of last year's opener), Lanning likely gives the Cyclones an edge over what Bill Snyder has to work with in Manhattan.
Given the open competition on the "40 acres" in Austin, Iowa State might also have a better quarterback situation than Charlie Strong has at Texas. It's been rumored that Strong will roll with true freshman, Shane Buechele, in the opener and it's unclear of Jerrod Heard, who injured his shoulder during the spring, will be fully healed for fall camp.
Iowa State doesn't need Lanning to average 300 yards per game passing and he doesn't have to crack the 1,000 mark as a rusher. At Toledo, Campbell's offenses were bolstered by a strong rushing attack, but were always balanced rarely one-dimensional.
Lanning is far from a polished product and showed last season that his mechanics, timing and decision-making were far from perfect. Still, he showed flashes of potential and really, that's all we want to see from a young quarterback, right?
The trio of Lanning, Warren and Lazard gives Campbell and offensive coordinator, Tom Manning, a great foundation to build around as a playmaking trio. Each one's success is dependent on the health and efficiency of the other. Warren and Lazard proved in 2015 that they're two of the best in the conference at their respective positions. It might be a bit much to ask that of Lanning, but if he can at least be productive, take care of the ball and up his completion rate, the Iowa State offense could be in for a huge season.