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In the Trenches: Springing Ahead

On the eve of spring football, ISU has holes to fill and players have opportunities to stake their claim to a role in the fall.

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Iowa State v Oklahoma State Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

This week, spring football will begin in earnest for the boys of the gridiron. This will be the second spring practice session for Coach Campbell and it will be different from 2016. ISU enters spring with a clear understanding of the program priorities and will be able to focus on improving on the now familiar schemes and techniques being taught by familiar coaches.

Coach Campbell will be seeking to further cement his “culture” as the off-season work will now be implemented in on-field play. Though attaining greater efficiency in execution is always a spring priority, I believe building practice habits and the mentality of the team is just as large a priority for CMC.

We aren’t treated to direct information from each practice, so our ability to evaluate the success or failure of spring ball is limited. In general, my interest is in the post-spring depth chart and in individual performances in the spring game.

On the whole, spring practice is an individual test for the players. The players are competing with each other for increased playing time, and for the established players, sharpening their skills to achieve a higher level of performance. The reps are invaluable and for many, spring may be the only opportunity to advance their collegiate career.

General Thoughts

This spring is vital for the program. As CMC continues to implement his culture, the second year sets the stage for future growth. It’s the first opportunity to work within his system to fine tune instead of building a frame. ISU’s ability to build on the success of the final third of the 2016 season will be determinative of its potential in the 2017 season.

That said, there are many questions to answer and holes to fill. Those questions need to be answered in the next six weeks and only a few should linger into fall camp.

  • The offensive line will be all new. Can they gel, and who will challenge the grad transfers that will be there in the fall?
  • What do they do with Joel Lanning? How does his role change? Or, does it?
  • Who will play on the defensive line and are they any better than last year?
  • Will the linebackers take a step forward in their play and who are the players that can be relied on?
  • Is there another cover corner on the team?
  • Who plays safety and are they competent in coverage?
  • Do we have a tight end and an “F”? Can they expand their role in the offense?
  • Do we have a legitimate threat in the receiving corp that provides an option beyond Lazard/Jones, and that shows promise for the future when Lazard is no longer there?
  • What do we have in Zeb Noland?
  • Will the defense improve in its base set, or will the “Cyclone” package rule the day?

This spring can set the stage for a quick answer to many of these questions in the fall.

The most exciting part of the spring for me is that the staff will be able to begin fall camp by reinforcing its base scheme and expanding its capabilities. Last year, the spring and fall were focused on broad scale implementation. This year, the focus will be on furthering the identity of this program.

Most importantly, there is an opportunity to utilize the information garnered from a full season in the Big 12 to create a strategy that is problematic for our common opponents. For instance, if a pass-catching TE emerges, then ISU will have the ability to pass out of a heavy run alignment.

Last year, ISU would run out of a pass heavy alignment, but a run alignment meant a run. Few Big 12 teams utilize their heavy packages to throw. Oklahoma State is an exception as they utilize their TE/FB extensively as a check down receiver and will throw liberally from their run heavy alignments. Developing this capability can counteract league adjustments and cause headaches for defensive coordinators.

Likewise, an improvement in DL and LB play in the base package can lead to the ability to disguise the stunt/blitz package on defense. If the stunt/blitz package can be disguised, become more versatile, and create either a blitz or heavy drop look at the snap, then crucial stops will follow.

Baylor and Oklahoma State had this ability last year and utilized the versatility to turn up the heat and sustain their comeback efforts.

A foundation for the above will be set this spring.

Opportunity Knocks, Who Will Answer?

Through attrition and circumstance, there are a number of players who have the opportunity to step up and cement themselves on this roster. Others need to take the next step in their development and the spring is the platform for doing so.

Below are some players that have drawn my interest and I believe are keys to a successful spring.

Joel Lanning

My interest here is in whether or not his skill set is expanded and how it is used. If I were the coach, I would have him work with the TE’s and RB’s in individual drills to expand his skill set. In team time, I would play him at QB, TE or F, and RB in individualized plays where he is the focus.

He is the wildcard for this offense. While he can be extremely effective, he can also slow things down. The spring needs to explore a way to utilize him throughout the game without taking snaps away from Jacob Park.

Park needs as many reps as he can safely get. In the fall, I don’t want to see his skills sacrificed for Lanning’s playing time. Instead, I would like to see a dual threat on the field at the same time where both are capable of hurting the defense with their primary skills. Based on the article cited below, Park is firmly cemented as the starter and his reps are secure.

However, I like the prospects of a package where Lanning lines up as the F back, then motions to the QB position while Park splits out. Lazard or Allen motions in to the position vacated by Lanning and now we have the unbalanced run play for Lanning, or an RPO with Lazard or Allen as the primary target from the inside.

Sunday’s article in the Des Moines Register indicates that Lanning may even get a look at linebacker. Intriguing prospect. He has the mental makeup and physical size to play the position. The transition is not terribly difficult as the offensive knowledge base easily translates to an ability to read plays.

If Lanning shows competence as a linebacker, there is a starting position for him there. He clearly has a role as an offensive specialist, but if there is a way to have him on the field regularly as a defender, then I would be all for it. His leadership contribution and base toughness would be an excellent upgrade on that side of the ball. This may be a short-lived experiment, but I suspect there is a strong basis for the hypothesis and this smoke could reveal a fire.

Zeb Noland/QB2

It is hard to opine about a guy that I have only seen on high school highlight reels. The intriguing thing here is that Noland was an early enrollee who is entering his second spring session. Last year, he climbed to QB2 and maintained that position until he was injured.

He now enters spring as the de facto QB2 given the Lanning news described above. I would anticipate that if Park were to be injured, the natural succession would see Lanning back in the QB1 role. But, there is an opportunity this spring for Noland to emerge as the true QB2 and be in line to receive some snaps next season.

Noland is more of a pocket passer in the mold of Park versus the dual threat posed by Lanning and incoming freshman Devon Moore. His highlight reel shows advanced pocket presence and willingness to take a hit to make a throw. He has solid zip and throws a very nice deep ball. His command of the offense should be on par with all returning QBs.

An ideal scenario will see a very solid spring from Noland that cements him as a clear QB2 and the successor to Park for 2019 and 2020. Having a solid #2 is a great start to any day.

RB Emergence (Nwangwu injury)

Kene Nwangwu’s injury is sad. Tough injury for a speed guy and I have a secret thought that he may have emerged as an impact ball carrier for this team. But, adversity creates opportunity.

There is no RB in the 2017 class, so ISU has what it has. First, this is a great opportunity for Mike Warren to re-emerge. I am very proud of him for staying in the fold and suspect that he is working to regain his form. That is an indication of personal character and I am happy he is on this team.

Beyond Montgomery and Warren, the third ball carrier is the aforementioned Joel Lanning. Given that reality, the injury may not be that impactful. Ryen returns as a competent returner or another may emerge as Kene did last year.

I will be watching and listening to see who becomes this year’s Mitchell Harger. Sheldon Croney has an opportunity to step up as a scholarship player. There are five walk-ons on the roster and three of those were brought in by the current staff. I believe the staff is comfortable with one or more of these walk-ons (Kwaw-Mensah, Staskewicz, Leach, Whipple, and Ramirez) and I am anxious to see who jumps in line to earn a scholarship.

Chase Allen and Dylan Soehner

I think these are the two most important players to follow. Campbell wants to use the TE on offense. He requires a versatile player, and that player’s presence is vital to increased offensive efficiency in his system. One or both of these guys has to be able to play.

Allen is built to be a pass catcher. Soehner is built like an extra tackle. If Allen can catch AND block and Soehner can block AND catch, then we have something to be excited about.

I can’t leave out Sam Seonbuchner. I was impressed with his blocking mentality and technique in the final third of the season. If he has added to his frame, he will play and play a lot. There is potential for quality depth at the position and it could be the difference in multiple games.

Matt Eaton, Jalen Martin, Hakeem Butler

Which of these guys will emerge as our third threat from the wide receiver position? I believe it is vital to have an extremely competent third receiver. While Lazard will be immune to most coverages, it remains a winning proposition to focus coverage on Jones and Lazard and take your chances with the others due to their inconsistency.

Reports about Martin have been glowing. Eaton was a highly coveted target and has been dedicated in his short tenure at ISU. We saw some real potential from Butler on the field and he needs greater consistency to establish his role.

Butler is an excellent downfield blocker. The other two will have to catch up to him in that important area. I don’t know if any of these guys can take the top off and be a downfield threat. That would be determinative for me.

If one of these guys can show the ability to make contested catches in the mid-field, then the offense will be enhanced. I am not discounting Ryen, Epps, Johnson, or Lee-Campbell, but, I believe these are the three guys who will be given the first opportunity to fulfill the role.

Sean Foster

The offensive line will need to emerge as a whole. Meeker and Udeogu need to show improvement and become the competition for Rodgers and Dawson in the fall. However, the one guy to watch for is Sean Foster.

Foster’s expected talent level should put him in the starting lineup. With a year of development under his belt, I expect him to emerge as a force on the line. Ideally, Foster and Campos anchor the edges and allow Good-Jones to move inside. It may be that Foster claims a spot on the interior and Good-Jones is too good to supplant on the edge.

Regardless, this team needs Foster to be what we expect him to be and stake a claim to his spot for the next three to four years.

Lima and Bailey, Josh

I am rooting for a 2018 defense that has Bailey, Bailey, and Bailey on the 3 man front. But, in the meantime, these two guys will need to be rotation players on the interior line.

Lima needs to be solid and disruptive. Bailey needs to show that he can stand his ground and fit in to a rotation.

The ideal scenario is for Lima and Tongomoa (when he gets here) to be steady, disciplined defenders who can get some push on pass plays. Then Johnson and Bailey to provide a unique skill set as rotational players. Against the high play volume offenses we play against, having four competent players on the interior provides an opportunity to stress opponents with fresh legs.

Uwazurike and Lensing

Can these guys play? Matt Leo and Spencer Benton will be the presumptive favorites to occupy the edge opposite JaQuan Bailey. These two guys provide an interesting twist and may enhance the line capabilities.

Uwazurike is a physical beast. He provides Jhaustin Thomas-like versatility with potential to move inside and out. Leo, the Great Barrier Beefcake, has the same potential and the deployment of both players in multiple roles can be disruptive in base and blitz packages.

It is plausible to expect Uwazurike and Leo to play one or both of the interior defensive line positions. On passing downs and third downs, the increased athleticism on the interior can be very effective.

I expect Lensing to have some edge rush capability. I am anxious to see if the good reports about his ability are true and whether he can cement a role as a situational pass rusher. Benton provides effort and some speed on the edge. I will be looking to see if Lensing provides the same thing at a higher level.

The seven potential members of the defensive line rotation (Bailey, Benton, Lima, Tongomoa, Uwazurike, Leo, and Lensing) may provide a full step up in defensive line play for 2017. Josh Bailey and Jamahl Johnson provide additional depth. Interesting prospects for a quick rebuild of a team weakness.

Can I get a Linebacker with a Bad Attitude?

If you have read any of my articles, you know how I feel about the state of our linebackers. You also know how important I believe this position is. Even against the pass-happy Big 12, a team HAS to stop the run. Competent linebacking is the best remedy (see Kansas State).

I will be watching the 2-deeps here almost as closely as I watch the TE position. Harvey, Mills, and Northrup have the experience edge, but there is a need for a talent upgrade. My attention will be on Tymar Sutton and Bobby McMillen.

I believe one or both of the 2017 recruits will be players in the fall, however, two of the current crew need to demonstrate the ability to play aggressive defense in our base package. Someone has to be able to beat a block and make a sure tackle.

I would send each one of these guys to wrestling school with Kevin Dresser to improve their tackling and ability to shed blockers in close quarters. Most importantly, I would spend the spring challenging them mentally and physically to see who has the meanest streak. Attitude and effort is key here.

Peavy and ____________

Brian Peavy can cover and I expect him to continue to improve. Jomal Wiltz was as good a cover man as Peavy and is going to be hard to replace. Arnold Azunna sounds like the favorite, but the spot is wide open for someone to seize the day.

I expect new recruit Richard Bowens to be in the mix and he has every opportunity to do so. Mackenro Alexander, Lawrence White, and Stephen Pickett-Brown will have an opportunity as well. One of these guys has to not only win the position, but do so with talent and competence. At the very least, there needs to be competition between two competent corners in the fall, and not a choice between the lesser evil.

A Safety that can Cover

KCM is out while he recovers from shoulder surgery. Mike Johnson is naga, nagannah, around. That leaves a major hole in a position that was one of the weakest on the defense in 2016. This position accounted for as many as eight explosive TD’s due to poor or blown coverage and struggled to make tackles in the open field.

The position must be upgraded in addition to just finding bodies to play. Jataris Grant has been spoken about in high regard. Braxton Lewis earned time last year. Thadd Daniels will have an opportunity to assert himself as well.

The talent here is unproven. Watching and listening for who is asserting themselves will be key. It is a major position to observe in the spring game.

In Conclusion

At the spring game, I will be watching the TE play, the LB play, and the play at safety. Those are the largest positions of concern for me as I anxiously await the fall. There are more questions overall than I would like to see for a team that is largely expected to take a step forward, but the talent pool is richer than it has been in the past.

The mental makeup of the new talent is impressive. Campbell targets players and values a tough, competitive mindset and style of play. Many of the new faces are guys with a “nasty” streak and a physical first style. As the roster takes shape for the fall, I expect more of these “nasty” players to attain prominent roles. It is the desired identity and one I am a huge fan of.

The Cyclones’ progress in embracing the culture of Matt Campbell will be essential for improvement. But, Coach Campbell has infused the roster with enough talent to make that step up. More importantly, most of that depth, while young, will know no other culture than his.

A toast to a productive and injury-free spring!!