Perhaps the most scrutinized and crucial spring practice session of Dan McCarney's tenure gets underway this week in the new indoor facility, and CN will be there covering each and every one of them.
By the way, you can check them out, too. And if I were you I would take advantage of that public access to see the new indoor facility for yourself, because it is a real gem. However, if you can't get up there for every session, stay tuned to CN as our Bill Seals will offer you his insight everyday leading right up to the Spring Game on April 17th.
So why is this spring practice so important to the football program and Cyclone Nation? Well, Iowa State has lost 16 of its last 19 games since October of 2002, and only one of those three victories has come against a Big 12 foe. Most of those losses were rather one-sided as well. As a result, Coach Mac plotted a new course this offseason with the additions of Barney Cotton and Todd Fitch as the new offensive brain trust.
Fans, whose expectations were rightly raised by McCarney's success, aren't willing to suffer through another lost season like they experienced in 2003, a year that saw a record amount of season tickets sold. Mac still remains a very popular figure, and rightly so. Yet, even Mac knows that a repeat of last season's debacle could send his favorable rating on a rather sharp downturn. That's because if making substantial changes on the coaching staff doesn't help right the ship, fans will have only him to hold responsible.
So what should Cyclone Nation expect from the rebuilding Cyclones this fall? It's way too early to answer that question. We'll know more after spring practice. And if you plan on checking a practice or two, or the Spring Game itself, here's a viewer's guide – if you will – on what to look for.
1. An emphasis on accountability and finding team leaders.
A few weeks before the start of spring practice, Iowa State Coach Dan McCarney revealed to CN that he thought selfishness became a problem for the upperclassmen during last fall's 2-10 season. For Mac, a coach that prides himself on establishing a family atmosphere replete with player accountability to the program, coaches, and each other, that had to be difficult to admit publicly. Now, don't be too hard on those seniors that have graduated. Their final seasons turned out to be a nightmare, and not even close to the level of competitiveness they were accustomed to. Some of that lost team chemistry is just a matter of human nature under the circumstances. Nonetheless, there were times that some of last year's upperclassmen didn't exactly provide the youngsters with great team role models. This spring, Mac vows to find real leaders on this team, no matter what class designation they happen to have. For the first time in several years, Mac and his staff of assistants are going to find themselves coaching effort, pride, and camaraderie this spring, three things most of us took for granted while the Cyclones were going to bowl games.
2. Re-establishing a physical philosophy on offense.
New offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Barney Cotton is "old school" in every sense of the term, hence the cover of this month's issue. Cotton's philosophy basically asks one question: why fool them if you can just run over them? Too often the past two years the Cyclones were too smart by a half on offense, mainly because of their inability to run the football. That was OK when you had Seneca Wallace at quarterback. That was not so OK when you had at times an all redshirt freshman offensive backfield last season. Cotton is a Nebraska Cornhusker born and bred, but that doesn't mean that Cyclone Nation should expect an offense that reverts back to the Stone Age. ISU is not going to suddenly become a triple-option team. Cotton says his preference is to run a combination of the Big Red offense of 10 years ago – think the Tommie Frazier/Brooks Berringer era – and ISU's offense in 2000-01. That's a lofty goal, considering the output of those two units. For now, I'd just settle for being tougher and more consistent.
3. The offensive line reclamation project.
No position group will be, and no position should be, more under the microscope this spring than the big uglies up front. ISU's offensive line play the past two years has been, well, let's just substandard. Was it a lack of talent? Was it a lack of experienced bodies? Yes could be the answer to those questions. The past two seasons, only departed senior Bob Montgomery was a recruited player at his position who had earned a varsity letter. Plus, there were injuries and recruiting washouts that forced youngsters to play before they were ready. Strength and conditioning seemed to be below what ISU was accustomed to. Insiders say teaching technique and trust were also a problem. A lot of fans will focus on the type of scheme Cotton runs and the plays he calls on offense. But it's the dirty work he does with this unit this spring where he'll have his biggest impact. Can he get youngsters like John Tjaden, Bastian Schober, and Brandon Cook ready to contribute? Can he maximize the talents of Aaron Brant and Seth Zehr? What kind of senior years can he get out of Luke Vander Sanden and Cale Stubbe? Cotton has a reputation as one of the top offensive line coaches in the country, let's hope that's true.
4. Settling on ONE quarterback.
After a year of rotisserie quarterback, Mac is ready for Austin Flynn, Cris Love, or Bret Meyer to step up and take the job. Flynn, a redshirt sophomore, is an athletic talent who was a prep All-American two years ago. He opened the season as the starter and flashed some of his potential, more so with his legs than his arm. Unfortunately, the bruising schedule and anemic blocking up front forced him to take too many shots. By the end of the season he had lost his job to rising senior Love and Waye Terry, who's done with football because of a congenital spinal injury. Love, a drop-back passer, doesn't seem to fit the mold of what new quarterbacks coach Todd Fitch is looking for. The advance buzz on Meyer rivals that of The Passion of the Christ. The Atlantic product lit up practice on the scout team repeatedly last fall while guiding the scout team. One frequent practice observer told me there wasn't a week that went by that Meyer didn't make a highlight reel play behind closed doors. Plus, and perhaps more importantly, he earned his teammates respect. It's a wide-open battle, but make no mistake that Mac is determined to find his starter this spring.
5. Finding some warm bodies at wide receiver.
Perhaps the greatest collective group of wide receivers in school history has exhausted its eligibility. That means there's a lot of playing time up for grabs this spring. One name to pencil in at that spot is redshirt freshman Todd Blythe out of Indianola. I'd be stunned if he's one player who doesn't earn a starting position. Blythe didn't quite generate the hype Meyer did on the scout team, but he turned some heads nevertheless. His work ethic, route running, and strong hands are his strengths. Aside from him, redshirt sophomore Jon Davis, who has performed well the past two springs, should be motivated to emerge. Milan Moses, another redshirt freshman, has outstanding athletic ability but he's still a raw prospect. Andy Kohler, recovering from knee surgery, should also be a factor. More bodies are needed here, and help is on the way this fall.
6. Finding some warm bodies for the secondary.
Ellis Hobbs will be the elder statesman of the defensive backfield this spring. Gone is a ton of experience, but not necessarily a ton of talent. This unit didn't make many big plays last season, except the ones made by Hobbs. Opposite Hobbs, speedy sophomore DeAndre Jackson is the favorite to lock down the other corner position, at least until a slew of talented recruits arrive this summer to challenge him. Stevie Paris will vie for one of the vacant safety positions, along with Nik Moser, who is switching from linebacker to his more natural position. Redshirt freshman Caleb Berg, who already has a reputation for being a fierce hitter, will see a lot of action in coverage. Because of the incoming talent that's not on campus yet, this is an area that could be overhauled between the end of spring practice and the September 4th season opener against Northern Iowa.
7. Improving the special teams.
This spring there will be zero tolerance for shooting anymore Easter Eggs. Last year's special teams play was, well, let's just use the word substandard again and leave it at that. Todd Miller was nonexistent on returns, and multiple kicks were blocked. It was not a pretty sight the entire season. When he was able to get it off, Tony Yelk was effective punting the football, despite a leg injury early on. Of course, with last year's offense he had plenty of practice. Speaking of Yelk, it looks as if he'll be asked to handle all of the kicking duties – punting, place kicking, and kickoffs – unless redshirt freshman Josh Griebahn demonstrates this spring he's ready for primetime. As of press time, ISU still hadn't announced who would take over the special teams coaching duties from the fired Marty Fine.
8. Scales will weigh in.
Arguably the greatest tailback in the history of Iowa high school football is already on campus and will participate in spring drills as a true freshman. And considering the dearth of talent and depth at that position, Jason Scales is going to see a lot of work this spring behind starter Stevie Hicks. The early start provides Scales with a head start over the other four highly touted running back recruits signed in February, and probably ensures he won't redshirt if he remains healthy. Scales ridiculously dominated the state high school ranks the last three years, posting gaudy numbers for a two-time state champion. Some question the caliber of competition he faced as well as his size, but no one questions his work ethic, talent, and intelligence.
9. Subtle position changes.
Back from a severe leg injury that cost him his entire senior season, Tyson Smith will rip off the medical redshirt and switch from rush end to WILL linebacker. The switch is intended to take better advantage of Smith's superior athleticism while minimizing the fact he's never been able to add enough junk in the trunk to be an effective, every-down run stopper with his hand down on the line. Plus, now it gives ISU two senior starters at linebacker. Also moving to linebacker is promising redshirt freshman Dominique Flower, who is essentially switching positions with the aforementioned Moser. Senior Tim Tebrink, who switched positions more than ISU switched quarterbacks last season, hopes to finally find a permanent home at defensive tackle this spring. Sophomore Brent Curvey, who played extremely well after being an unheralded recruit, will move from defensive end to defensive tackle as well. On the offensive line, look for Zehr to move to center, Brant to move from guard to right tackle, Stubbe to move from right tackle to the vital left tackle slot, and Vander Sanden to move from center to guard.
10. Developing depth at linebacker.
Three years ago, the Cyclones signed what they thought was an outstanding group of prep linebackers. This spring it is time for those players to step up. Jimmy Morris still hasn't recovered from a knee injury and will be held out. The coaches love Matthew Robertson's attitude and physical approach to the game, but he also struggled to stay healthy last season. Role players like Erik Anderson and Jamar Buchanan will also see a lot of action.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Central Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)