Excuse me a second before we get started.
OK, I just wanted to take one last drink of cardinal-and-gold Kool-Aid before composing this week's column. When writing about preseason reasons for optimism for a team riding a 10-game losing streak, you probably can't be too inebriated.
Yet it is of sound mind and body that I present seven reasons why Cyclone Nation should be cautiously optimistic about the fall of 2004; despite the obvious youth, tough (though not as bad as last year's) schedule, and unsettled quarterback situation. However, after consulting with folks who have more intimate knowledge of what's going on behind closed doors during preseason practice than I do, I must admit that even I'm starting to giddy-up.
By Golly, that son of a gun Dan McCarney could sell ice to Eskimos, couldn't he?
So, with formal preparations for Northern Iowa set to begin Monday, it's time to take stock in where we stand.
1. ALANALDACLONE's post makes a good point.
Last Thursday a subscriber posted the following on our State of the Nation premium message board:
I know Mac is always upbeat, but it seems to me that he believes his rhetoric more this year himself. Last year, I kind of got the feeling that he was whistling past the graveyard when talking about the team. I sense a real excitement in him this year though. Of course, that may be wishful thinking on my part.
That is largely an anecdotal assessment, but that doesn't make it an inaccurate one. The reason I picked up on this was because I was actually going to post something very similar after reading two weeks' of Bill Seals' practice reports, but ALANALDACLONE beat me to it. I can tell you that came across in person as well when I interview Mac or just talk to him informally about the team. Let's face it, Mac's enthusiasm is so contagious he could almost make the French courageous. However, I can promise you there is competitive fire burning there that is eager to prove wrong all the naysayers harping on last season as a setback as opposed to an aberration.
Now, does that necessarily mean that Mac thinks this team is going to be better than anyone suspects? Maybe. Does it mean this team will be more fun to coach and watch take shape compared to last year's? Definitely.
On the other hand, in the interests of fairness, Mac's evaluation of Saturday's scrimmage wasn't exactly glowing, which you can read by clicking here: http://iowastate.theinsiders.com/2/286487.html.
I'm not quite sure what to think of that report, since Mac rarely ever lets his positive guard down. Knowing Mac, I'm inclined to think the scrimmage itself didn't go well and wasn't indicative of what he's seen thus far in preseason practice, which is why he let us know about it. I suspect he was letting certain players know about it through the media as well.
Keep in mind, this is a young – really young – team. With youth comes inconsistency. Also keep in mind that Mac is keenly aware of fan expectations at all times, and probably doesn't want them to get too high coming off 2-10.
2. The team is relatively injury-free.
Except for Andy Kohler's potentially serious knee injury, the Cyclones have dodged the injury bug that nested in Ames like a plague of locusts last fall. More specific information will be known about Andy's status soon, but from what we've heard thus far it doesn't look good.
Other than that, there have been a few scrapes and minor snafus (James Wright, Erik Anderson, etc.) and that's it. Several front-line players sat out Saturday's scrimmage, but Mac said all of them would've played if it was gametime. Considering the competitive and physical spirit of preseason camp, that is a good omen if you ask me. Hopefully I didn't just jinx it by taking notice.
3. The chip is back on the shoulder.
One of the things I've read Ben Bruns write about a lot on our website is the quest for respect and recognition that was the cornerstone of McCarney's mission to rebuild the football program at ISU. Once that respect was attained, it then became a battle to sustain it.
Unfortunately, all the distractions seemed to drown out that sentiment in the last year. The pace, physicality, and passion of last Wednesday's scrimmage were some of the things "Voice of the Cyclones" John Walters noted in a conversation I had with him on KXNO last week.
Walters said, "The players got after it, worked hard, hit hard, and finished plays. It was a spirited workout."
It was also a workout that left Walters feeling better about the season at hand. To read a more complete summary of the interview, click here:
4. JUCO transfers are facing tougher-than-expected position battles.
After all, the secondary was ravaged by graduation, so the addition of a trio of junior college transfers that earned some All-American recognition before signing a letter-of-intent seemed like a natural fit. But a funny thing happened on the way to the top of the depth chart. Junior Stevie Paris and sophomore DeAndre Jackson embraced the renewed competition, and decided to not give up their spots to the newcomers without a fight.
Gair, Hargis, and Hicks will still play—and likely a lot. Yet accepting the challenge, and being motivated by it as opposed to taking affront, I think speaks again to the difference in this year's team attitude.
5. Tim Dobbins gives ISU a look on defense they've lacked over the years.
Over the years, ISU's linebackers – even the effective ones – often fell into two categories: small and quick or large and pedestrian. Mississippi junior college Tim Dobbins is big and quick, and is the type of specimen you haven't seen wear a Cyclone uniform in the past.
He's 245 pounds and can run, and he's already nailed down the starting middle linebacker spot. That precipitated the move of Brandon Brown to the WILL, where Tyson Smith was before he went to his old rush end slot vacated by the incarcerated Jason Berryman. If one player has really made a name for himself this month it's Dobbins, and I can't wait to see him on gameday.
I think we all thought the defensive line, even without Berryman, was going to be a strength on this team. However, by all accounts Leaders has had an excellent fall camp following a disappointing sophomore season, and Curvey hasn't been too far behind.
Having two plow-horses up front plugging up the middle is usually the first step towards having a quality defense, because it makes it that much tougher to run the football. It also frees up playmaking linebackers to make plays. There's a certain school out in the eastern part of this state that has built its defense on that principle and been quite effective at it, even with average cornerback coverage in the secondary.
7. Two big football commitments from out-of-state studs.
Not often have we seen the Cyclones land out-of-state prospects of significance this early in the process, so that alone is worth noting. Fiacco is rated one of the top 100 prospects in the Midwest by TheInsiders, while Catlett had a scholarship offer from emerging Pac-10 power California, which runs a pro-style offense with a hotshot head coach. Both were good gets, and maybe – just maybe – they're signs that the darkness has receded.
And now for the bad news…
Before we start contacting the National Cyclone Club about bowl tickets, let's get a reality check in before this week's column concludes.
There still isn't a clear starter at quarterback. I'm not surprised at the development, but I wish it wasn't the case nonetheless. We seem to still be where we were from the start. Flynn has the intangibles, but needs to become more of a playmaker. Meyer has the panache but lacks polish. Expect to see both play quite a bit against Northern Iowa and expect to see this battle carry on through the season.
After 15 spring practices, and two weeks of two-a-days, there still isn't a left guard worthy of awarding a starting spot to. There's chance a junior college player who primarily played defense could win that role.
The offensive line as a whole, under the microscope after two seasons of mediocre to poor play, hasn't generated a lot of preseason buzz. I'm not exactly sure what that means.
Finally, and I know you're sick of hearing this, but I'm still looking a roster with 60 freshmen and sophomores, plus a plethora of JUCO newcomers poised to play significant minutes. It's going to take some time for this team to jell.
(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.)