"Bret Meyer is listed number one right now, because he's a little bit more consistent and made a few more plays," said McCarney in the first of two press conferences between now and next Saturday's spring game. "But that race is not about to be over right now. We've got four more scrimmages and seven more practices, then two-a-days. Bret's got a slight edge right now. He, Austin Flynn and Cris Love are all going after it, but after eight practices and two scrimmages Bret's got a little bit of an edge."
The influence of first-year offensive coordinator and line coach Barney Cotton is also apparent, as the Cyclones have made some changes along their offensive front.
Starters Luke Vander Sanden and Seth Zehr have flip-flopped positions, with Vander Sanden moving back to center where he's had his most experience, and Zehr moving to guard after being a backup there last season. Kory Pence and Trent Claussen, who are listed on an even line at left guard, have dissolved the two-horse race of Johannes Egbers and Bastian Schober that started spring vying for a starting job.
"More than anything, Barney (Cotton) is getting a feel and the chance to coach these kids," McCarney said. "You can be around them and watch them jump rope and run bags in the winter time, but to get out and watch them play football and block our defensive linemen is a different thing. Then you get a feel on if they're better at snapping the ball and blocking, or just lining up with their hand down and blocking somebody.
"Barney has now gotten a chance to coach these kids. It's looking right now like they were all good moves. I think we're going to leave Luke at center and Seth at guard, then Walker and Schmeling switching positions is a good move."
The two-deep at three wide receiver positions also should be surprising to Cyclone fans. As expected, Todd Blythe is listed as the starter at wideout. But third-year sophomore Jon Davis has been relegated to a backup role behind Andy Kohler, who missed much of last season with a torn ACL. Todd Miller is the third starter, and has a slight edge over walk-on Ryan Baum.
"It's inconsistency," McCarney said of Davis' early spring woes. "We expect more out of Jon and he expects more out of himself. He's got to practice better, play better and scrimmage better. He hasn't done that on a consistent basis yet.
"It's also a credit to Andy Kohler, because he's come off a major ACL reconstruction. He's got one year to play and has mostly been a special teams guys so far. But with the way he looks now and the way he's working, he's going to be more of a special teams guy as a senior."
ISU's two-deep on defense was less of a surprise, with the only significant change being Henry Poullard's passing of DeAndre Jackson at left cornerback. Although Poullard has had the best spring of his Cyclone career, Jackson didn't help his case by missing Saturday's scrimmage with a minor injury.
Offense still a work in progress
McCarney said that perhaps the biggest unit still in need of improvement is the offense, which has had a rollercoaster spring under new coaches Cotton and Todd Fitch. But on the other hand, ISU's head coach isn't surprised that the offense has been slow to come around.
"We've got to be more consistent from an offensive standpoint," he said. "We cut down on some mental errors from scrimmage one to scrimmage two, but we've got to be more consistent. That's every position on offense.
"We've got to continue to be a better with our rush offense, then continue to make more plays in the pass game. But it is a new system, with three new coaches. I didn't expect to go out there and be ready to go up and down the field on Oklahoma State. We've got a lot of work to do."
Defensive line a strength of team?
Not many would have pegged the defensive line as a strength, especially with the loss of defensive tackle Jordan Carstens, who is expected to be selected in this month's NFL Draft. But coaches appear to be very settled on the starting four of Jason Berryman, Brent Curvey, Nick Leaders and Cephus Johnson.
Continued solid play from Berryman, and career springs from the other three starters have made this position better than expected.
"It's one of the strengths," McCarney said. "We don't have enough strengths right now. But if they continue to work the way they have, it should be one of the strengths of our team next year. I like the way these guys are working.
"Curvey and Berryman are coming out of being starters as true freshmen, Leaders is playing better than he did all of last year, and Cephus Johnson had the best scrimmage he's ever had here last Saturday. We've got high expectations for Cephus, though, and want him to do it for 60 to 70 snaps a game every week, and not flashes in the pan."