1. No Worries Surrounding Joel Lanning
What a difference one year makes for Iowa State quarterback Joel Lanning, who entered the spring game last April as the program’s third-stringer only to return 12 months later as the undisputed starter Saturday.
Lanning remains a work in progress as he gears up for his junior campaign, but Iowa State has no qualms about its quarterback position. He needs more work with the playbook than he does with his game, and that’s a positive sign.
“I thought he was really today,” coach Matt Campbell said. “I thought he was really sharp throwing the ball, I thought he managed the game really well, I thought his drives were really effective. Joel has great ability and I think you saw some of that with his ability to throw the football down the field and throw the football on the run. Obviously we didn’t run him very much in terms of the run game, but I thought he managed today really well.”
Lanning’s biggest offseason task was to shore up his accuracy after the wear and tear of being a starting quarterback hindered him at times last season. He finished the spring game Saturday completing 58 percent of his passes (11-of-19) for 161 yards and one 47-yard touchdown pass.
Next up? His footwork.
Lanning, who is now on his third quarterbacks coach and fourth offensive coordinator, is being asked to do different things with his feet under the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Jim Hofher and will give it added emphasis this summer.
“Right now I’ve got to focus on [the playbook] and heading into the summer, it’s the next transition, so I’ve got to work on my feet, get in the film room and do all that stuff,” Lanning said. “Just keep making myself better for this season.”
And he does so holding tightly onto the No. 1 job.
“I don’t know if we as a team we are [where I want to be], but I would say I leave here today feeling confident about our quarterback position and certainly confident about Joel Lanning,” Campbell said.
2. Fresh Talent Emerges at Center
“Never in my life,” Julian Good-Jones quickly replied Saturday when asked if he had ever played center before coaches asked him to shift there this spring.
Yet that’s where the 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman now sits on Iowa State’s preliminary depth chart following spring ball. And he sits, currently, at the top.
“Julian has really solidified the interior of our offensive line, I’ll say that,” Campbell said. “I think we’ll evaluate all practices, but he’s really gotten better. He’s had a very good spring for us. I think that’s the great thing, these next two and a half months, competition doesn’t stop now, nobody has earned anything.”
Iowa State is on the search for a center after graduating last season’s starter, Jamison Lalk, and after his backup, Nick Severs, chose to leave the program. Good-Jones, a Cedar Rapids native, quickly emerged as a possible replacement.
So in 15 spring practices, Good-Jones learned to snap and made the move from his spot at right tackle to the unfamiliar center spot.
“They’re usually our best athletes, they’re guys that have the ability to physically be imposing inside but also have the athleticism to pull and do some things,” Campbell said of the center in his offense. “We ask a lot of our center and I felt like Julian, just early on, watching him compete in winter workouts, watching his athleticism, he could play probably anywhere across the offensive line, but we thought, ‘Hey, let’s let him anchor that interior part of it and see what he can do for us.’”
Next in line behind Good-Jones at the moment is fellow Cedar Rapids redshirt freshman Bryce Meeker, though Patrick Scoggins has taken snaps there too.
“It’s really humbling honestly,” Good-Jones said. “It’s just a great opportunity I have here and I know I have a chance to play so I just want to make every chance count.”
3. Another Kicking Battle in 2016?
When the Cardinal team called timeout in the final seconds of the first half Saturday afternoon, kicker Chris Francis proceeded to swing his foot through a 51-yard field goal pushing it clearly through the Jack Trice Stadium uprights.
Moments later, he overcame the icing by hitting a 52-yarder.
“That’s not something that goes through your mind,” Francis said, “but whatever happens, you just have to kind of take it and run with it.”
In a sense, that’s how Francis is approaching this whole kicking thing.
The redshirt junior kicked with the second team through the duration of spring ball, but has made an impression that could have him battling starter Cole Netten for some kicking duties again next fall.
“I thought he had a really good 15 practices as well. It was really great to see him hit that, not only once, but twice,” Campbell said. “Man, those guys were icing the kicker today, so you could tell what was on the line.”
Netten hit his only field goal attempt Saturday, a 34-yarder, and Campbell said his biggest battle continues to be his consistency in hitting kicks.
“He’s got ability, he’s got strength, but it’s consistency and it’s his ability to focus and be the best he possibly can be day in and day out,” Campbell said. “It’s easy to say but hard to do at kicker. That’s just the nature of the beast. It’s not an easy position. It’s such a confidence position. I thought Cole had a really nice spring as well and it’s nice to have a little competition going into fall camp.
“I think competition makes the best of us all.”
4. Mike Warren Gets the Day Off
Mike Warren won a 40-yard dash against teammate Allen Lazard and three students at halftime Saturday but otherwise went widely unnoticed.
Iowa State held its newly minted 1,000-yard rusher out of the spring game if for no other reason than to avoid injury and get a closer look at his 2016 backups.
“He got a lot of carries last weekend in the scrimmage, he’s played a lot of live football, I know what Mike Warren can do, and the reality of it is, I wanted to see what some of those other guys could do with the football,” Campbell said of holding Warren out. “Mike will be ready and had a really good spring.”
So, what did those other guys do?
Walk-on Mitchell Harger, who turned down job offers to return to Iowa State for one more season, rushed 15 times for 48 yards to lead the way. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Sheldon Croney, who received his first action this spring after missing the fall with a hand injury, rushed seven times for 16 yards.
Iowa State will rely heavily on Warren in 2016, but Harger is expected to see carries and Croney should, too. How many each might get will ultimately depend on what incoming freshmen David Montgomery and Kene Nwangwu can provide.
“Mitchell will define [his role] as the season goes, but I’m not afraid of Mitchell Harger. I’ll be honest with you, I really like when he’s in the football game,” Campbell said. “I have great confidence when he is in there, so what that role is, especially once these young guys come in here and how that gets expanded, I think a lot will be what kind of summer he has.”
5. Defense Rules the Spring Game
It should come as no surprise that the Cardinal and Gold teams were stalemated in a defensive battle Saturday afternoon.
Spring games and scrimmages oftentimes give the defense an advantage and that was no different in this 10-6 affair. Adding to the difficulty for the offense was having only somewhere around 15 percent of the playbook installed.
Campbell said afterward he has seen improvement from the linebacker position, a spot he recently said is one of the most concerning on the team, and overall was happy with the defensive performance Saturday afternoon.
“We were playing base defense and just playing football today,” Campbell said. “When you split the teams up like we did, it’s a thin group, but I thought our kids played hard, I thought they ran to the football, I thought our defensive front was able to do some good things at times. There’s a lot of competition on our defensive side. There’s a lot of guys on that two defense right now that have started football games here. It’s going to be interesting to see… who comes out with the 11 starting positions as we go into the season.”
6. Excitement Is In the Air
Certainly the clear skies and 75-degree weather helped, but the excitement surrounding the current state of the Iowa State football program may have played the biggest role in drawing 15,089 fans to the spring game Saturday.
The crowd, which was noticeably larger than spring games of recent years, came on the heels of seven wins in the past three seasons. Still, recruiting momentum, which has recently included three 2017 commitments in four days, has helped build excitement leading into Campbell’s first spring.
“It was a great crowd and it was awesome to see all the Cyclone fans here,” Lanning said. “It’s just going to be fun for the season.”