If you've never attended an Iowa State spring football game before – and given the minuscule attendance figures I've witnessed in the past, that seem to be many of you – this is an excellent year to make it to your first at Jack Trice Stadium. The weather is expected to be beautiful, and a new chapter in the Dan McCarney era of Cyclone football is being written this spring.
- By the time fall rolls around, 60 of the 85 scholarship players could be freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or sophomores.
- There could be a time this season when the quarterback, tailback, and wide receivers are all freshmen eligibility players that all hail from the Iowa high school ranks.
- New combinations along the offensive line have been emerging after each spring scrimmage as new offensive coordinator Barney Cotton continues to sift through the two-deeps.
- The Bergstrom Indoor Facility, the latest jewel in the athletic department's crown, has been host to several practice sessions.
Before this spring practice began, I wrote that I thought it was the most pivotal of the McCarney regime, given the results of 16 of the last 19 games and last season's 2-10 disappointment. New faces, both on the field and on the sidelines, indicated that Mac understand the program was not heading in the right direction. Thus, necessary changes were made.
It's also my opinion that 2004 is really the rebuilding year, not last season. This is the season where youth will be served. What will be interesting is to see how Cyclone Nation will respond if my assessment is correct. But there's plenty of time to discuss that this summer. For now, hope springs eternal.
So what should you expect to see on Saturday afternoon?
Well, for those of you that just can't wait until then, or didn't catch it when I originally posted it on our premium message board late last week, here are my observations from the public scrimmage we did a live KXNO broadcast from on April 7th.
Physically this looks like a football team again. The days of slender, 283-pound offensive tackles seem to be over. Perhaps the lack of bowl preparations this winter led guys to spend more time with Coach McGettigan in the weight room? Or, maybe it's just that younger players are beginning to fill out? Regardless, several Cyclones pass the eye test. That doesn't always mean a whole lot, because there have been times when ISU was going to bowl games that they weren't the most imposing team on the field. However, what I think it does indicate is that returning Cyclones were motivated not to repeat last season's debacle.
Unfortunately, size doesn't always matter. The offensive line is still a work in progress, which is somewhat to be expected. Mac did tell me that he thought they were already better now than they were all of last season, and that's al well and good. But let's face it, there was only way for this unit to go after the last two seasons. In the scrimmage on Wednesday, the unit produced mixed results. They did spring Stevie Hicks for a long touchdown run. However, they also allowed three sacks that I saw, and they failed to consistently establish a new line of scrimmage in goal-line situations, which drew the ire of Coach Cotton.
Back to the eye test for a moment. I started covering ISU football up close during the memorable 9-3 campaign of 2000, so this will be my fifth season. During that time-span, I don't recall seeing any offensive skill players as chiseled and impressive as Hicks, Milan Moses, and Jon Davis. These guys look like thoroughbreds. In the scrimmage I saw, all three had big days. I know Moses is young, and Davis is inconsistent, but I've got to believe there is place for those two guys in the starting lineup. Also looking particularly ripped was Tyson Smith, who hides his physique well in street clothes. Once he puts on a uniform, he looks like should change clothes in a telephone booth and wear a cape. Another player on defense who stood out to me from an appearance standpoint was Stevie Paris, and he needs a strong spring because he's got some serious competition entering school this summer.
This just in from the keep an eye on that kid department. Dominique Flower…well, let's just say he's going to be pretty good.
The scrimmage was testy, and included several skirmishes. The nastiest involved several players, and ended with a blind-side shot from I believe Ellis Hobbs (one of my favorite players) that drew Mac's attention. Another scuffle included Hicks completely tattooing poor DeAndre Jackson. I take this extra-curricular activity as a good sign. Nobody can take anything for granted after last season, and with so much youth many spots are up for grabs. Hopefully this newfound attitude spills over into autumn.
Linebackers Jamar Buchanan and Matthew Robertson have really improved. Smith has looked a little awkward at times in pass coverage, which is to be expected since he's spent his whole career previously playing with his hand down. Buchanan is really pushing him at WILL. Robertson has always been considered one of the most promising members of the class of 2002, but injuries slowed him down last season. He's back and fully healthy.
This quarterback battle is far different than last spring's. After spring practice in 2003, it was obvious to everyone that Austin Flynn had outplayed Cris Love, yet Love was still named the starter heading into the fall. Presumably, that was done to keep the pressure of replacing the great Seneca Wallace off of Flynn's shoulders for as long as possible. This year is not a battle of attrition. Redshirt freshman Bret Meyer, whom we heard so much about while he was on the scout team last season, has lived up to the hype and is atop the depth chart by a slim margin. Yet Flynn, the only high school All-American quarterback to ever sign with the Cyclones, isn't going quietly. He's the better overall athlete, and a born leader. It's more a testament to Meyer's potential that he is the starter at this point than a case of Flynn suffering a hangover from a rocky freshman campaign. This rivalry will make both players better players, because they're both so competitive that they'll push each every week.
I was really impressed with Ryan Baum, who has been one of the pleasant surprises of spring practice. He's not big, overly quick, nor fast. He just catches everything thrown his way. Keep an eye on him on Saturday.
I didn't get a chance to see Todd Blythe and Jason Scales scrimmage last week. Blythe was working out a tweaked knee, but has since returned. By all accounts of practice observers he is the best wideout in the program. Scales looks much bigger from the waist down than his measurables would seem to indicate. He's also done a little kick returning this spring, and that's certainly an area that could use an infusion of athleticism.
Thank goodness some much-hyped JUCO studs are coming to campus this summer, because the secondary was giving up big play after big play during the scrimmage that I watched.
Then there's the bane of every Cyclone's existence—special teams. The less said about that, the better.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m., the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)