1. The keyword here is playmaker.
After playing a sadistic schedule the past two years that featured top-notch programs like Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Texas Tech, and Kansas State, the need for players capable of making big plays on their own became readily apparent. Without a difference-maker like Ennis Haywood, Sage Rosenfels, J.J. Moses, Reggie Hayward, and Seneca Wallace to rely upon against such stiff competition, Iowa State's bowl fortunes sagged and its won-loss record suffered. ISU concentrated on bolstering the line of scrimmage in the last two recruiting classes, so the Cyclones honed in on finding those playmakers this winter. All-state and All-America running backs, guys that led the nation's junior colleges in interceptions, and studs who could just flat-out run regardless of position were the priorities. If you're a Cyclone fan that wanted to see the skill-position talent upgraded, you should be pleased with this class because that's exactly what the ISU coaches did.
2. Not bad for a team that was 2-10 last season.
On the heels of a disastrous football season that Cyclone Nation still hasn't fully recovered from, ISU fans were wondering if recruiting would suffer this year as a result. Well, if you know Dan McCarney, then you know that kind of disappointment and doubt only serves to motivate he and his staff all the more. Did the Cyclones lose some recruiting battles because of their dismal showing last fall? Sure, and that's to be expected. However, plenty others saw it as an opportunity to play early for a program that had grown accustomed to bowl berths. Mac and the staff went coast-to-coast to find players, and signed athletes from eight different states. They worked tirelessly on assembling this class right up until Mac's press conference started on National Signing Day, and a group generally regarded to be among the top 40-45 classes in America was their reward.
3. Lots of competition for Stevie Hicks.
Currently, the Cyclones have just one tailback on scholarship that they feel they can win with in the Big 12. That's rising sophomore Stevie Hicks, who showed flashes down the stretch last season of the enormous potential that wowed the coaches during his redshirt year. Now Hicks is about to get some company in the backfield. It begins with Jason Scales, who graduated early from West Des Moines (IA) Valley High School so that he could enroll at Iowa State in January. Scales broke numerous state records while leading the Tigers to the last two Class 4-A state titles. He'll participate in spring ball, and should be no worse than number two on the depth chart going into the fall. This summer, more reinforcements will arrive on campus. Iowa City West's Greg Coleman, who was recruited nationally until he had some legal troubles off the field difficulties last summer, is a bulldozer with good speed. Brandon Gunn hails from the football factory at Omaha Central and was offered by UCLA and Nebraska. Tyease Thompson was one of the top runners in Florida who was also recruited by LSU and Tennessee. Webster Patrick of Texas was rated by one service as the top all-purpose back in the country, and reminds the ISU coaches of a Darren Davis with great speed. Is there room at running back for all five of these guys? Nope, but there's always room on the roster somewhere for five athletes of this caliber.
4. Instant gratification.
It's probably too early to start forecasting which of these recruits will get the opportunity to play as soon as this fall, but I'm guessing as many as nine recruits from the class of '04 will play in '04. Within that loaded group of incoming prep running backs, you can expect the aforementioned Jason Scales to forego the redshirt. Tyease Thompson and Webster Patrick, with their speed, will also be tough to keep off the field. Also expect to see a lot of junior college transfer Terrance Highsmith on offense. He wants to play quarterback but will likely end up at wide receiver. Defensively, expect to see several JUCO signees contribute immediately. Defensive backs Josh Hargis, LaMarcus Hicks, and Jerry Gair are each ball-hawks with good size. Former Hawkeye Fabian Dodd provides bulk to a young defensive line. Linebacker Tim Dobbins will be asked to fill a need area for the Cyclones.
- The three that got away.
Fans always wonder "what might have been" when it comes to those can't-miss prospects their team was ultimately unable to sign, and Cyclone Nation is no different. Three defensive prospects, in particular, broke the hearts of the cardinal-and-gold. ISU recruited JUCO defensive linemen Austin Jackson and Tearrius George down to the wire, literally. In fact, the pursuit of that duo spilled over onto National Signing Day before Jackson eventually ended up at Hawaii and George signed with hated Big 12 rival Kansas State. Florida linebacker Tyrone McKenzie really liked the ISU coaches, and the immediate playing time that was available. However, in the end his high school coach's relationship with Michigan State won out for his services. Had the Cyclones ended up with those three players, they might've ended up with their first Top 25 recruiting class.
6. Home sweet home.
Despite the Renaissance that rival school 100 miles or so east of us on I-80 is enjoying, the Cyclones continued to have a high recruiting profile within the state of Iowa. There were considered to be four elite-level prospects in-state in this year's class. The Hawkeyes signed one of them, another one ended up going out of state, and the other two – Jason Scales and Greg Coleman – signed with the Cyclones. As usual, the state of Iowa led the final recruiting list with 11 signees. Keep an eye on homegrown offensive linemen Jordan Goos, Landon Streit, and Kody Kuehl. None of them were highly-regarded by the recruiting gurus, but all of them were given an extensive evaluation by the ISU coaching staff at summer camps before being offered a scholarship.
7. Mining Mississippi for talent.
Florida and Texas are familiar recruiting haunts down South for every college football program, and ISU is certainly no different. However, the ISU coaches discovered a new plot of land south of the Mason-Dixon Line this recruiting season. Its name is Mississippi. The coaches were tipped of that young men from the state that gives us the annual Egg Bowl were willing to leave home for the right opportunity, contrary to conventional wisdom. ISU took that tip and ran with it by signing JUCOs LaMarcus Hicks and Tim Dobbins. Hicks, a former all-state cornerback, turned down Ole Miss and Mississippi State in favor of the Cyclones. Dobbins had several scholarship offers, but other schools wanted to him to enroll in time for spring football, which he was academically unable to do. Look for Mac and staff to become regulars down in the Magnolia State in the future.
8. The next quarterback is already on campus.
Terrance Highsmith, who originally signed with North Carolina out of high school before being placed at Fort Scott (KS) Junior College by Iowa State, is the lone quarterback signee in this class. Highsmith has an enthusiasm that is contagious and isn't exactly shy, plus he has a strong arm. However, he won't arrive on campus until summer, which will make it very tough for him to win the starting quarterback job at ISU this year. Instead, look for him to use athleticism at wide receiver. Thus, the player who will be given the responsibility of being the trigger man for new offensive coordinator Barney Cotton's new offense is already on campus. And his name is either sophomore Austin Flynn or redshirt freshman Bret Meyer.
9. Picking Cotton.
Speaking of Barney Cotton, he might turn out to be the best new recruit in Dan McCarney's class. His lone year as the Nebraska offensive coordinator produced mixed statistical results, but a 10-win season nonetheless. But calling the plays isn't where he'll likely have the biggest immediate impact at ISU, it's how he develops an offensive line that was young, physically under-developed, and constantly in transition the past two seasons where he'll ultimately be judged. By reputation, the no-nonsense Cotton is known as one of the better offensive line coaches in the business, and the Cyclones' beleaguered group will give him the opportunity to prove his worth.
10. Diamonds in the Rough.
Noted recruiting analyst Tom Lemming often says ISU is one of the best schools in America when it comes to identifying underrated talent. This recruiting class there are two players that could turn out to be the latest sleepers turned solid contributors. Nebraska offensive lineman Brandon Johnson is a top-notch wrestler that new offensive coordinator Barney Cotton recruited while he was with the Huskers. He's big, strong, and mean, but was overlooked because he played eight-man football in the northwestern part of the state. Another sleeper to keep your eye on is wide receiver Chris Brown, who was a multi-purpose quarterback that led his high school team to a state title in the talent-rich state of Texas. He has legitimate 4.4 speed and turned down Oklahoma State to sign with the Cyclones.
After last week's utterly humiliating loss at Kansas State, which was Iowa State's third straight blowout loss, even I began to doubt whether or not Wayne Morgan's first Cyclone basketball team was soft.
However, the character ISU displayed in posting its most impressive win of the season to date against 11th-ranked Texas should erase all doubts about ISU's testicular fortitude.
I wish I could've been there for that one, but alas family comes first. Especially when it's your only child's third birthday. Yet that effort is one I'll keep immortalized on the TIVO. The guts the Cyclones displayed when they blew their first half cushion and fell behind by 14 points in the second half was, in a word, inspirational. It was a win worthy of the magnitude of the occasion, with past ISU greats like Thompson, Smith, Grayer, Hornacek, Hoiberg, and Taylor having their names immortalized in the Hilton Coliseum rafters at halftime.
Considering the emotion of that moment in time, the caliber of the opponent vanquished, the fragile psyche of the team coming into the contest, and the adversity faced during the contest, this has to rank as one of the great examples of Hilton Magic ever.
And that's saying something.
ISU now a bubble team
The Cyclones are now .500 in the Big 12 after the win over the Longhorns with three weeks remaining in the regular season. That means they can now be officially described as a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament.
ISU is 57th in this week's all-important RPI, which is usually too high to get an at-large berth. However, a few wins over several of the teams that remain on their schedule should be enough to land them in the top 50, which is usually the cut-off for the Selection Committee.
Four more wins would give them a 9-7 record in the tough Big 12, and likely a top-50 RPI. In my opinion, that would probably be enough to get them in. At least one win in the conference tournament would cement their chances with 19-20 wins. I don't think the Cyclones get in with a .500 conference record unless they reach the finals of the Big 12 Tournament and get to 20 wins.
Ironically, if Iowa were to continue to make late-season noise in the dreadful Big Ten that would certainly help ISU's cause, as would Virginia and Xavier finishing well down the stretch. Had ISU won on the road at San Diego State (97th in the RPI), Kansas State (113th), Baylor (194th), its NCAA Tournament prospects would be greatly enhanced.
Sweet 16 seeds
This week's projection of the top four seeds in each region of the NCAA Tournament, if today were Selection Sunday.
Midwest—1. Mississippi State, 2. Oklahoma State, 3. Providence, 4. Wisconsin
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each Monday-Friday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)