AMES, IOWA -- As if the football season didn’t just seem to wrap up with National Signing Day a few weeks back, here we are again, with focus on the gridiron as Iowa State is one week removed from the start of spring practice.
The Cyclones will begin spring workouts on the indoor practice field inside the Bergstrom Football Complex on March 3 facing many questions. Coming off a 2-10 season that was plagued by injuries and disappointing losses, the six weeks of spring ball will provide an opportunity to forget the past and long for the future ahead of a long offseason leading into fall camp and eventually the 2015 season.
For the first time in a long time, one of the many questions that surround this Iowa State team is not which quarterback will run the offense. Entering his senior season, Sam Richardson will get first team reps and should run with the job beginning this spring. That’s good news for a fan base that has dealt with quarterback battle after quarterback battle for quite some time.
Yet with that question answered early, many still remain. As the Cyclones navigate through the six weeks of spring ball, they’ll attempt to work toward finding those answers. Here are five questions to get started:
1. Coming off a season-ending knee injury, can receiver Quenton Bundrage become the playmaker everybody expected him to be last season?
All signs point to receiver Quenton Bundrage being ready from Day 1 of spring practice after the redshirt senior missed the entirely of the 2014 season when he suffered a torn ACL on the fourth play of the season-opener. Bundrage entered last season with eyes pointed on making an impression and potentially putting himself in position for the NFL. Instead, he spent the ensuing months rehabbing.
Before this question can be answered, the Cyclones first need to answer the question of where Bundrage is in his recovery. The typical recovery timetable for an ACL tear is six months, which puts Bundrage into the first weeks of March. Coach Paul Rhoads said in December that Bundrage was ahead of schedule.
“I believe he’ll be out there every day in the spring,” Rhoads said. “I don’t think we’ll hit him. We certainly won’t tackle him. But I don’t think he’ll miss a day of spring practice based on what I’m watching.”
As a redshirt junior in 2013, Bundrage burst onto the scene, leading Iowa State with 48 catches, 676 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Those would have all been team-leading again in 2014, when Bundrage was expected to take another leap. The question now is whether he can do that with a repaired ACL. That answer won’t likely come simply with six weeks of spring ball, but it’ll be the first step in finding out if Bundrage can become a major offensive weapon yet again.
2. Who fills the void at center for the Cyclones? And can the offensive line find continuity with four-year starter Tom Farniok gone?
It has been no secret that Iowa State’s offensive line has struggled in recent seasons when Tom Farniok has missed time. When the four-year center missed limited action in both 2013 and 2014, the offensive line was notably affected. Now, the group has no choice but to figure things out with Farniok gone.
Before Iowa State can answer the question of how it moves on from Farniok, it must first answer the question of who replaces him. That answer rests with a number of candidates who should get reps in the six weeks ahead. There could be more candidates (Rhoads has referenced the number four), but three who stick out early are redshirt senior Jamison Lalk, redshirt junior Patrick Scoggins and redshirt sophomore Nick Severs.
Lalk appeared in all 12 games last season making 11 starts while playing almost exclusively at guard. When Farniok exited the season-opener early, however, it was Lalk who shifted to center. Scoggins, meanwhile, arrived at Iowa State as a mid-year signee back in December. At 6-foot-2, Scoggins is strictly an interior lineman, and while he played guard at Long Beach C.C., Scoggins did talk with coaches during the recruiting process about shifting to center. Then there is Severs, who hasn’t seen much game action. After redshirting in 2013, Severs finished last season on the two-deep at center behind Farniok.
The battle to replace Farniok likely won’t be answered until the fall, but the six weeks of spring ball will allow for some potential separation. Meanwhile, the question of whether or not the Cyclones’ offensive line can find continuity without Farniok will linger until proven otherwise.
3. Who emerges from the young stable of running backs?
Iowa State will have a very green backfield this spring, but if nothing else, that means running backs coach Louis Ayeni will have a chance to shape his young runners and those runners will have a chance to, pun intended, run with the job.
“They’re all young and hungry, they all have chips on their shoulders," Ayeni said. "For me that gets exciting, because those are the type of guys I want. I need guys who are going to go get it. It’s going to be a fun little competition come this spring and the fall.”
With Aaron Wimberly (642 yards in 2014) gone via graduation and DeVondrick Nealy (273 yards in 2014) gone by choice, the Cyclones will enter the spring with three primary runners vying for time next fall. That list includes Tyler Brown (RSo.), Martinez Syria (Fr.) and Michael Warren (RFr.). That group had 44 carries for 156 yards last season. The group is certainly young, but it’s also talented.
This question won’t be answered until the fall, but a runner can most certainly continue to assert himself in the six weeks ahead. Come fall, two new names, Joshua Thomas and Sheldon Croney, will get a shot for playing time as true freshmen.
4. With E.J. Bibbs moving on to Sundays in the NFL, who will Iowa State rely on to fill the large void left at tight end?
Replacing E.J. Bibbs won’t be easy, and it likely won’t even be possible, at least not during the 2015 season. Nonetheless, the Cyclones must find a way to match some of the production. At the same time, Iowa State could move to using its tight end more for blocking purposes, although that remains to be seen.
Bibbs reeled in 45 passes for 382 yards and a team-high 8 touchdown receptions last season. Iowa State could look more to its receivers in 2015 to make up for some of that production, but it is also looking for a tight end to step up.
On their current listed roster, the Cyclones name five tight ends: Ben Boesen, Justin Chandler, Jake Ortale, Scotty Schaffner and Quan West. With that said, that list is actually probably at four as Rhoads told AllCyclones.com in early February that the experiment to move West from receiver to tight end hadn’t gone as hoped.
Boesen, a senior, has been primarily a special teams player during his career while Chandler, a junior, redshirted last season after arriving from Blinn C.C. Schaffner and Ortale, both redshirt freshmen, will bring young blood to the competition.
5. What JUCO players will make an immediate impact?
Iowa State brought in six JUCO players in its 2015 class, four of which are already on campus and will participate in spring ball. That list includes DT Demond Tucker, DBs Jarnor Jones and Jomal Wiltz and Scoggins.
All eyes this spring will be on the highly-touted Tucker, who coaches and fans alike hope can plug the middle of Iowa State’s defensive line. That’s where improvement on defense will begin for the Cyclones in 2015, and Tucker faces high expectations. Meanwhile, Jones will likely be slotted as the starting nickel come March 3 and Wiltz will play into the cornerback position while also showing off his speed as a returner.
One other JUCO name? Linebacker Jordan Harris. After redshirting last season, Harris will be slotted as the starting middle linebacker next week. He’s said to hit hard, but now must prove he knows the defense.