Cyclone head coach Dan McCarney must name a starting quarterback between now and his season opener in September. An offensive line that took its lumps in 2003 must show improvement, but will have to do so without the services of graduated starters Bob Montgomery and Casey Shelton. Four senior wide receivers have also moved on, leaving a cast of youth and inexperience behind.
And all of this must take place while new offensive coordinator Cotton introduces a new offensive package to an ISU team that last season ranked near the bottom in many categories on offense. Cotton, a Nebraska alum, spent last season as the Huskers' offensive coordinator. While he faces an uphill battle in rebuilding the Cyclone offense, one thing is clear: he's is right man for the job.
"He's an excellent football coach," said McCarney. "It's pretty good credibility with your players when you bring in a guy who coordinated and ran the offensive line of a team that won 10 games and were bowl champions. Their loss is our major gain, that's the way I look at it."
At the center of Cotton's focus is the offensive line, a position he'll be coaching full time. Cale Stubbe, Luke Vander Sanden, Aaron Brant and Seth Zehr all got starting experience one season ago, but on a unit that didn't experience much success.
Stubbe will move from right guard to left guard to account for the loss of Shelton, while Brant moves from guard to right tackle. Zehr will be stepping into a full-time job at center, while Vander Sanden hopes to remain healthy and become a force at guard. Bastian Schober and Johannes Egbers are candidates to start at left guard.
Just how important is the offensive line in ISU's rebounding from two losses?
"We'll only be as good offensively as we are up front," said Cotton, a former All-Big Eight offensive lineman at Nebraska. "If we're going to be successful on offense, then it's going to pretty much be determined by the five guys in the game up front. The whole focal point of spring has got to be identifying who the (offensive linemen) are and then to develop some continuity with the front five. That's half your offense right there.
"If those guys aren't getting it done it doesn't make any difference what you're doing anywhere else. Those guys have to open holes to run the ball, and if you're quarterback is getting his pants dirty all the time you're not going to be very effective throwing the ball either."
Returning quarterback Austin Flynn knows what it's like to get his uniform dirty, as he spent much of his redshirt freshman season either running for his life or getting knocked down by Big 12 defenders. As a result, his production dropped sharply during the Cyclones' 10-game losing streak.
But regardless of the line ISU puts in front of him, the arrival of Meyer means he'll have to produce this spring. Meyer received much praise from McCarney during the offseason, and will get his first shot this spring with the first-team unit.
"I know that things didn't go well for (Flynn) at the end of last year, but with winter conditioning hopefully he's built his confidence back up," Cotton said. "Early on this spring until the thing starts to play itself out, (Flynn, Meyer and Cris Love) will be given the opportunity to play with the best guys. You can't always have one guy with the ones and one guy with twos. Nothing is set in stone right now. There will be an early pecking order, but basically all bets are off. That spot will have to be earned."
McCarney hopes to avoid what happened last season in Ames by naming a starting quarterback before the end of spring.
"With more scrimmage opportunities in the spring than we'll have in the fall, I hope we can make a decision this spring," ISU's head coach said. "I'd rather get it done, name our starter, see if he can hold onto it through two-a-days, then get ready for September 4th. The heat is on, the competition's running, and I feel better about that whole scenario and situation than I did last year at this time."
While the Cyclones' receiving corps will likely not be as good as the one that took the field last fall, the candidates to step in as starters have plenty of potential. Jon Davis, Todd Blythe and Milan Moses all have better-than-average height and the speed to go along with it. Todd Miller has spent much of his career returning kicks and punts, but will get his first legitimate shot as a pass catcher this spring.
But the fact remains that the experience takes a sharp dropoff from '03 when leading receiver Lane Danielsen broke Cyclone career marks for catches and yards.
"Even though that's a giant question mark right now, I hope through watching them in winter conditioning that the position may become a strength for us," Cotton said. "We've got some size out there, but they've got the control of their body to run good routes and play jump ball with defensive backs.
"We need to make sure that longer bodies can get off the line of scrimmage. Releases will be a big part of their training regimen. But it looks like they're athletic and are striders, which means defensive backs will have to take the precaution that they may run by them. Hopefully one of two of those guys can put some fear in a corner that they can run by them."
The position the coaching staff is most settled on is also the one that has seen the biggest drop in production over two seasons…tailback. The only thing that could shake things up looks to be injuries, as sophomore Stevie Hicks returns as the starter and heralded freshman back Jason Scales will take the field in a Cyclone uniform for the first time. Long-time reserve Brian Thompson is also back for ISU.
But expect to see a lot of Hicks this spring, particularly on the first-team offense.
"We're going to have to put a lot of weight on his shoulders," Cotton said. "He's got big shoulders and is about 215 pounds, so he's on the verge of becoming a big back. Maybe he could become a game finisher for us, a four-minute offense kind of guy. Some of the most important running those guys do is late in the game when you hopefully are playing with the lead."
Another position that could get interesting this spring is tight end. Although it's been under-utilized in passing situations during recent seasons, Cotton has made a commitment to getting the tight end more involved.
The likely candidate to emerge as the starter is James Wright, who gives coaches an adequate receiving threat and solid blocker. After coaching a first-team All-Big 12 tight end in Lincoln last season, ISU can trust Cotton will follow through with his plan.
"We've got to identify some tight ends and incorporate the tight end more into this offense," Cotton said. "If we want to be an effective throwing team, an effective play action team and an effective running team, the tight end spot has to raise its level of play. Some of those guys that are unknown quantities need to jump into the fray and perform for us."