1. The Early Spring Health Report
Iowa State’s injury woes in recent seasons have been well documented, and much of the early attrition under Matt Campbell has been injury related.
The Cyclones have thus far seen injury attrition from Daniel Burton, Luke Knott and Levi Peters, and Tuesday made official that both Quan West and Jacob Dunning are each taking medical hardships as well.
As for the health of the current team, Iowa State is in decent shape as it enters the six-week spring schedule. Offensive lineman Jake Campos is sidelined after having minor hip surgery this offseason, but the Cyclones had Patrick Scoggins, Gabe Luna, Terry Ayeni and Sheldon Croney all in uniform on Day 1.
“There were definitely some injuries with guys in limited reps or whatever that may be a year ago. I think that’s the one nice thing with change, too, everybody starts with a clean slate,” Campbell said. “Now all of a sudden, you’re kind of allowed to come into this with a clean slate and no preconceived notions. We’ve allowed these guys to start from scratch and really allow them to see what they look like over a period of time.”
2. Rebuilding the Offensive Line
Offensive line coach Tom Manning isn’t in unfamiliar territory this spring despite arriving with a bevy of offensive line questions facing the team. Manning rebuilt Toledo’s offensive line from scratch last year after graduating the entire group, and will now face a similar challenge in Ames this spring.
Iowa State loses 111 starts through attrition and graduation, and of its 24 career starts returning in 2016, the Cyclones have little experience with Jake Campos, who has started 23 games, sidelined following offseason hip surgery.
“It’s a matter of starting at square one, which is ironic because we kind of did the same thing a year ago at Toledo,” Campbell said of the offensive line. “We’ve been down that road and we’ll just take it one day at a time.”
The one other returning start comes from Nick Fett while tackle Jaypee Philbert had numerous reps on the two-deep in 2015. Iowa State is likely to move linemen around this spring and moving forward with Karson Green, Shawn Curtis, Bryce Meeker and Julian Good-Jones among those in the mix.
As for Campos, Iowa State expects the soon-to-be junior to be fine. He was running and working out Tuesday, and his limited spring is mostly precautionary.
“He’s getting bigger and stronger. You can only control what you can control and he’s got to be able to do that right now and get really good mental reps,” Campbell said. “When you have a young man like him that’s played so many reps, I don’t think it’s worth the risk of trying to get him back too fast. It’s not something that was a major surgery or anything I think any of us are worried about.”
3. Learning the New Positions
While Campbell and Co. have yet to reveal much about what Iowa State might look like schematically in 2016, there will certainly be new wrinkles on both sides of the ball.
Overall, Iowa State has three new positions worth knowing about.
Leo — Iowa State’s ‘Leo’ position will be a hybrid of a defensive end and linebacker. “Guys that have the ability to be maybe a hybrid high-end pass-rusher but also have the ability at times to drop into coverage and move into an interior linebacker at times,” is how Campbell described it. This spring, the name to watch at Leo will be Darius White. While he is the current front-runner to take the job, Sam Seonbuchner and Seth Nerness will be in that mix as youngsters while 2016 signee JaQuan Bailey will be a name to watch once he arrives.
M — A position that goes by the longform name of ‘multiple,’ the ‘M’ position will be centered on quick and versatile offensive playmakers. Iowa State has moved athlete Trever Ryen from running back to slot receiver, and he’ll be in the ‘M’ mix. The frontrunner here is Jauan Wesley while Orion Salters is there too. This summer, the Cyclones add four-star signee Deshaunte Jones. What is the position? It’ll be a mix of a slot receiver who can also play some running back and be involved in special teams. While at Toledo, the staff used this ‘M’ guy in many creative ways.
F — The ‘F’ position is somewhat of a fullback. This will pull from the tight end position and the immediate candidates to see time in the backfield here are Cole Anderson and Sam Harms, who walked on from Iowa Western this winter. Iowa State would like to use its tight ends more in both the traditional sense and in the H-back role, and these two players will fit that mold immediately this spring.
When it comes to a 4-2-5 defensive scheme or anything else, Campbell still isn’t ready to reveal much until the staff gets a closer look this spring.
“Everybody says, ‘What are you going to play?’ Well, the reality is, we have no idea,” Campbell said. “I think our early setting is, ‘What can our players do?’ Then, ‘What formations should we be in?’ and ‘What plays should we actually call?’ I think we’re happy with what we’ve seen, but we really have no idea until we get out in practice what we have that fits some of those positions we’ve played in the past.”
4. Position Changes
There isn’t much in the way of position changes, but Iowa State had one noticeable switch up on Day 1 of spring ball as nickel/linebacker Jay Jones was at cornerback.
Jones, who will be entering his senior season this fall, has indeed been moved to cornerback as a lanky 6-foot-3 defender. The experiment, as Campbell called it, is still a work in progress, but there’s a good chance Jones is locked on defenders this fall.
“I think that’s our starting point right now. I’m a big believer in length in terms of cornerback play and Jay is a guy that, again, had a phenomenal winter for us,” Campbell said. “We kind of said, as we really evaluated the video tape, ‘Is he better off closer to the football or is he better off maybe farther away from the football where he can use his length and his skill?’ Jay may not be the fastest corner that we have, but his strength, his power and his length [helps]. It’s kind of a starting spot, probably a little bit exploratory from our side of things, but you talk about a guy being a situational player and maybe even a guy growing into a guy that can be comfortable there.”
Jones appeared in all 12 games for the Cyclones in 2015, starting nine at the nickel position where he made 49 tackles.
The rest of the position changes: Josh Coleman is moving from defensive tackle to defensive end; Brieon Creer is moving from the D-line to the O-line; Ashton Clemons is moving from a fullback-type role to tight end and Sam Seonbuchner is moving from linebacker to defensive end.
5. Figuring Out the Running Back Position
There is no question who Iowa State’s No. 1 running back will be when Sept. 3 rolls around, but Iowa State must, in the meantime, determine who relieves him.
Following a freshman campaign in which he rushed for 1,339 yards, Mike Warren is the undoubted leader of the self-described wolfpack. Behind him? Immediately this spring will be walk-on Mitch Harger and redshirt freshman Sheldon Croney, who is still recovering from hand surgery and could ultimately move to defensive back.
“I’ll be honest with you, I think [Harger] has got a tremendous skillset,” Campbell said. “I’m really excited to see what he can do. I think if you really watch the games last year and watch what he did when he was in, he’s a guy that’s a very capable football player. I’ve got great expectations for Mitch.”
“Sheldon, obviously, with a tough injury, and we’re working him back into the groove,” Campbell said. “I really like what he brings to the table. I’ve been able to watch his high school tape to see what his capabilities are. I think he’s a very capable football player, but again, how does he come back from the injury? What’s it look like when there’s contact? What’s it look like over a period of time? I think that’s a great unknown.”
Iowa State will add true freshmen David Montgomery and Kene Nwangwu this summer. Montgomery is expected to play immediately as a big back while Nwangwu could redshirt if the Cyclones can go without his services.