Ben Bruns was a standout center at Iowa State and a key member of the 2000 senior class that led Iowa State to a 9-3 record and top 25 ranking in both the Coach's and AP polls. Bruns finished 5th in the voting for the Rimington Trophy, awarded annually to the top center in college football, and in high school was named the Class 1-A Player of the Year by the Des Moines Register. The native of Denver, Iowa now provides analysis for the Cyclone Radio Network and Cyclone Nation during the football season.
CN: Do you agree with the comment that this was a good time for Iowa State's second bye week of the season, and why?
Bruns: I do think it has been good for the team. We have a lot of talented players that are banged up and need a week to recover. If you have a bye early in the year, you have the opportunity to work hard at fundamentals and get ready for the next opponent. With a bye deep in the season, you get a chance to rest up from the rigors of the season and look at a lot more film of your next few games.
CN: Did the time off allow the Cyclones to get their minds off the shutout in Lincoln, or could that game still be lingering and in turn be a negative for the team's psyche?
Bruns: I don't think it will be a negative when it is all said and done. If you had scored 7 or 3 or 10, who cares? You play the game to win. If you don't, you work to put yourself in a position to win the next week.
CN: What do you think Dan McCarney's pep talk this week will sound like, with his team coming off six straight losses?
Bruns: Mac has always focused on the future. This KSU game means a lot to everyone in and around the program. It is the chance to have a good feeling after a bunch of bad. They will be ready to play the rest of the schedule and to improve.
CN: Offensive line and special teams coach Marty Fine has come under fire from fans during recent weeks for ISU's decline in the run game and problems with blocked punts. Is this criticism warranted, or do the problems lie in other areas?
Bruns: I think you have a lot of different factors here. I've touched on this briefly in the past, but I'll go into some more detail. In the offensive line specifically, the problem goes back to 1997. The '97 recruiting class included about ten guys who came in either as offensive linemen or defensive linemen who were switched to offensive line before their careers were done. Of the 10, only Andy Stensrud, a TE recruit, and Marcel Howard, a walk-on tight end, had meaningful time as starters.
The lack of productivity in this class caused ISU to go to junior colleges to try to get developed players in 1998 and 1999. Of the JC guys brought in, only Ryan Gerke, Scott Rickard and Lorenzo White panned out. Since we had to go to the JUCO players, Zach Butler and Bob Montgomery were the only freshman scholarship offensive linemen signed in their respective recruiting classes.
This brings us to the void we are seeing right now. Luke Vander Sanden, Casey Shelton and Cale Stubbe came in as defensive linemen and are all in their second years playing offensive line. Bob Montgomery is the only real offensive line recruit and was coached by three different coaches with three different styles. He has benefited from the blend of styles like Ben Beaudet, and I did when we experienced the Loney, Hoener, Loney combination, and is a very good offensive lineman with good technique. Aaron Brant is a little bit of a victim of the system and never should have had to come into a starting role this quickly in his career. He has responded extremely well and has a very bright future, as does Seth Zehr.
So you have to look at the situation Coach Fine walked into as part of the evaluation of his performance. On the other side of that coin is the potential of the guys up front and the overall group performance. I feel like Shelton, Luke and Cale all just as or more athletic than I was, so there is something to work with. As much as people talk about the role of strength coaches, players are responsible for maximizing their potential in conditioning and the weight room. I think that hard work is obvious in looking at a guy like Cale. Luke has been held back by almost constant rehabilitation of injuries. Casey has always had difficulty putting on solid weight.
The last component for maximization of potential is coaching. I think we've seen marked improvement in the play of these three over the last two years in their pass protection skills. The hardest of all offensive line skills to be able to automatically execute is the zone blocking technique. In this respect, I think the guys haven't come along quickly as we have needed to and I think that is one of the reasons our run game is inconsistent.
Ultimately, you have to look at a coach's relationship with his players and the overall performance of the group to make an intelligent evaluation. Most people don't see the day-to-day relationship and coaching effort Coach Mac and the players see.
I absolutely believe Mac does what he thinks is best for Cyclone football. If that means he is behind Coach Fine and feels we are improving and will continue to improve, than we should all absolutely stand behind him.
CN: Technically speaking, what has been the root of the Cyclones' problems up front this season?
Bruns: The offensive line has to perform as a group to be successful. If two or three guys are playing mistake-free football and two or three are taking turns making mistakes, you will not be able to excute. Because of this, offensive line is the hardest position to play and coach. It is also the reason a good offensive line can control a game. At times, we are outstanding as everyone is clicking. Unfortunately, there are too many times where we take turns making mistakes.
CN: It sounds as if starting offensive lineman Luke Vander Sanden will be available this weekend, plus Bob Montgomery has returned to near 100 percent. Could we expect to see better results in the run game and pass protection as soon as Saturday?
Bruns: I think having Luke back will help a bunch if he really is good to go. Bob is a guard and can be a dominant force when he is playing that position. It also helps you let the freshmen take turns at the other guard spot.
CN: Much of the talk heading into this season had to do with ISU's receiving corps being the best ever under McCarney. Is this group performing up to par, or is it more the case of it not getting enough opportunities?
Bruns: I think they are playing okay. Because of our inconsistency up front, it makes it hard for any of the skill positions to get in a rhythm. It is tough when you are struggling at quarterback as well.
CN: Defensively, what have you seen in recent weeks that leads you to believe that this unit has turned the corner after some forgettable performances early in Big 12 play?
Bruns: I think the offense has caused the defense to be under extreme pressure for most of the year. We don't have the best defense in the country, but they can keep us in a game for a quarter and a half. However, against the offenses we face it is tough if they are out there all game.
CN: Let's hit on Kansas State for a little bit. Bill Snyder's team has had a mental and physical edge over the Cyclones throughout much of the McCarney era. How difficult will it be to overcome that with a team reeling from six consecutive losses?
Bruns: I don't think it will be an issue. This team wants to win this game. They've wanted it since the start of the season.
Bruns: I think they are a very talented team that is just extremely streaky. They have the athletes to beat anyone if they are playing well.
CN: Has K-State's offensive game plan changed much over the years? Will it still involve a power running game with Ell Roberson and Darren Sproles in the backfield?
Bruns: They will still run isolation and power plays right at you, then the QB draw and then throw the bomb. It can be an explosive offense if you don't get the run game shut down.
CN: What impresses you the most about the Bobby Elliott-led defense?
Bruns: They are very athletic and do a nice job of being in the right places at the right times. You have to be able to be physical in the run game and then throw to loosen them up when they bring an extra man in the box. It will be tough for us because they won't need to stack it to slow our running game. Our QBs will need to be very sharp.
CN: Finally, what will the Cyclones need to do in order to have success Saturday afternoon?
Bruns: A serious chip on their shoulders and some offensive production.