Many eyes will be fixed on the three-way competition for the job Seneca Wallace occupied the past two seasons.
Returning backup Cris Love opens spring as the starting quarterback after completing 3-of-6 passes for 39 yards and a touchdown in three games last season, before getting called upon in the first quarter of the Humanitarian Bowl after Wallace sprained a knee.
"Certainly that job is up for grabs going into spring practice. Cris Love will start out as the number one guy and we'll see how he does with that," said offensive coordinator Steve Brickey. "Cris is the one guy that has been out there a little bit and played pretty decently. We feel like he certainly deserves to start off as the first-teamer. Then we'll see how the other guys perform in trying to beat him out."
Love will have to fend off a pair of redshirt quarterbacks. With two seasons of eligibility remaining, the time is now for Waye Terry, a prolific quarterback from the California JUCO ranks, who will open as the second-teamer.
Austin Flynn received high marks as a Texas high school quarterback, then shined in front of Cyclone coaches in bowl practices. The approach is simple for this redshirt freshman – everything to gain, nothing to lose.
The supporting cast figures to be much stronger this spring, so Brickey and his offensive coaches will be taking a simple approach when grading out the quarterback position.
"We saw towards the end of the season that it's not always who's making great plays as much as who can avoid making the really poor ones," he said. "That's a factor. Some guys have a knack for knowing when to fold your cards, realize the defense has got you and let's not make a bad situation worse by giving up the ball. That's something we pride ourselves in around here. Who can make sure we don't give the other team cheapies?"
ISU brings back its entire group of tailbacks from a year ago, but can't really claim to have a returning starter. In breaking a string of seven consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher, the Cyclones went to a running back by committee approach. Hiawatha Rutland, Michael Wagner and Brian Thompson combined to rush for 1,410 yards and 17 touchdowns during the regular season.
That production wasn't nearly enough to keep the pressure off of Wallace, especially down the stretch when he fell victim to a rash of turnovers.
Brickey hopes the return of those three tailbacks and the instant injection of Stevie Hicks' talent will help ISU get back to where it once was. The prolific running back earned scout team player of the year in 2002, while many Cyclone fans wondered why he wasn't pressed into action as a true freshman.
"Early in the season we just didn't feel like he was ready, Hiawatha was playing well, we had confidence in Wags and knew B.T. was coming along," Brickey said of the decision to keep the redshirt on Hicks. "Then once so much of the season was gone, you still weren't positive Hicks was ready. You would've hated to play him, burn a season and then maybe find out he wasn't ready."
One thing is for sure – the competition for the right to start the Cyclones' opener in August will be heated.
"Stevie Hicks showed enough in practice and scrimmages that he has a lot of good abilities," Brickey said. "It's going to be a situation similar to the quarterbacks. The competition will be healthy and forces everybody to be at their best everyday."
More experience and depth on the offensive line should make for some more running lanes this spring. While Bob Montgomery, Casey Shelton and Cale Stubbe return to their starting roles, Luke Vander Sanden hopes for a clean bill of health this spring so that he can rejoin the lineup. Vander Sanden broke bones in both of his legs at separate times last season, but has been cleared for action and will be a first-team center.
That leaves one job open heading into the spring…right guard. McCarney has said it will be a two-way battle between redshirt freshman Seth Zehr and first-year man Aaron Brant. However, senior Collin Menard will be looking to erase memories of a difficult first year on the job in '02 and make an impression on coaches.
ISU's most experience and depth is on the defensive side of the ball, where John Skladany gets star players Jordan Carstens, Tyson Smith, Brandon Brown, JaMaine Billups and Anthony Forrest, among others, back for another season.
"We've got quite a bit of returners, which is encouraging," Skladany said. "We lost Matt Word, Jeremy Loyd and Atif Austin, and those guys played a lot of quality snaps over the years and were productive. We have some big shoes to fill at those spots, but some young players are eager, and with the success we've had the last three years are motivated and want to show what they can do when it's their turn."
Coaches will be keeping a keen eye on those players vying to replace Word, Loyd and Austin in the lineup. A trio of redshirt freshmen and a veteran senior that has dealt with an array of injuries throughout his career are atop that list.
Jimmy Morris, Matt Robertson and Kyle Smith are factors as inside linebackers, with Morris and Robertson battling Joe Woodley to start at WILL and Smith providing depth behind Brown who has moved to MIKE.
"They've all done what we've asked them to do," Skladany said. "They've all gained some good weight, which is what they needed to do. They needed to get to at least where they are right now, and from here on we'll see.
"All three of those guys are in the same boat. They all have good work habits and are coach-able. They're all pretty physically, and have talent and the potential to help us and get into the two-deep. Now it's a matter of who's going to do it. We have some good numbers."
A spiritual leader and team captain a year ago, Chris Whitaker is lucky to just be on the field competing after breaking a leg, tearing a knee ligament and fighting stress fractures throughout his four years in Ames. Whitaker has managed to be successful when on the field, too, recording 107 tackles and four sacks. He played 11 of 13 regular-season games last fall and posted 32 tackles and one sack.
Skladany feels SAM linebacker will be a good position for Whitaker, who is no longer able to play entire games because of his past injuries.
"We're going to do a little more nickel against certain personnel sets, where the SAM would come off the field," Skladany said. "We didn't have to do that last year, because Jeremy Loyd was so fast and athletic. Now we need another linebacker to play over a tight end, who's a sturdy guy and Chris Whitaker is certainly that. We think Chris can hold up against a two-back/one tight end or two-back/two tight end."
Up front at defensive end, the Cyclones are looking for a bigger option to hold down the edge opposite rush end Tyson Smith. Under-sized Beau Coleman filled the spot last year. Skladany has moved athletic 280-pounder Tim Tebrink outside permanently hoping he'll take hold of the job. But youngsters Beau Klaffke and Korey Smith are on the horizon and are ready to assert themselves. Don't count out senior Shaheed Richardson, who was a disappointing JUCO transfer one year ago.
ISU made one more position change hoping to address the loss of Austin at cornerback. One of the Cyclones' most athletic defensive players and the team's Humanitarian Bowl MVP, Anthony Forrest will move to cornerback. Starter Ellis Hobbs and top reserves Harold Clewis and Johnny Smith return, but coaches are looking to put its best mix of talent on the field.
"We're going to fool with Anthony Forrest at corner this year," Skladany said. "He's good-sized kid that's tall. We've had some problems getting out-manned on the outside. Anthony has good range, and is fast and good with his hands. I think he's a kid that can turn and run. He's played a lot of nickel and dime stuff before where he's had to cover guys, blitz off the corner and do some things."