1. What is the theme for this year's football team?
Let's go with "youth is served." I know that many of you are already sick of hearing this mantra, but with 60 of the 85 scholarship players of freshman and sophomore eligibility, this is an extremely young team. One of the youngest in the nation, I'd guess. And that's not even counting the half dozen or so junior college transfers that will play right away as well. Another possible theme is "don't look back" following last season's exercise in futility.
2. Is Bret Meyer really the clear-cut starter at quarterback?
The easy answer is no. Meyer will start this Saturday against Northern Iowa, but all that promises the redshirt freshman from Atlantic is that he'll be in there for the first series. It was made quite apparent that Austin Flynn will play as well and even in the first half. Flynn may have lost this battle, but as he showed in the spring game he is a gamer nonetheless. Meanwhile, Meyer have won this round, but as he showed in the spring game he's still just a freshman. I don't think it's entirely out of the question Flynn could earn the start the following weekend when the Cyclones travel to Iowa City depending on what happens against UNI. Meyer's biggest asset seems to be his bigger upside and superior physical gifts. It remains to be seen how ready he is to lead a Big 12 program in his first season off the scout team.
3. Should Austin Flynn change positions?
Absolutely not! Flynn is just three years removed from being a high school All-American quarterback, but was probably thrust into the starting lineup out of necessity a year before he was ready last fall. However, even during a topsy-turvy 2003 he displayed excellent mobility, chutzpah, and the ability to take a punch, all qualities that have already endeared him to many members of Cyclone Nation. He may have lost this particular battle to Meyer, but both of these guys are young and there will be plenty of opportunities for both to win and lose the starting quarterback job. This competition is far from over and it can only make each of them better by pushing the other for playing time. Besides, significant positions switches are best reserved for the laboratory that is spring football, not fall or season practice.
4. Will Jason Berryman play football at ISU this season?
With each passing day it becomes more and more highly unlikely. Last season's team MVP will "celebrate" one month in a Story County Jail Cell on Friday, barring a last-minute posting of bail. His demise is a sad, sad tale. Nine months ago he was poised to become ISU's first All-American on defense since 1978. Now he's looking at four felony counts stemming from an alleged robbery that netted him only $4. His trial isn't scheduled to begin until mid-October, and if he's not released from jail before then it would mean missing nearly two-thirds of the fall academic semester, even if he gets acquitted. That's a best case scenario, folks. There's a better chance that I'll be playing for Iowa State this season than Berryman.
5. What is ISU's biggest concern heading into this season?
Just how improved is the offensive line? Last season it was…well…let's say for the sake of being nice it was "in transition." So far during preseason practice it's reportedly been up-and-down, which is actually an improvement from an almost always down 2003. Four of the five slots have been settled since the end of spring practice, but only recently has one player – Kory Pence – begun to assert himself at the vacant left guard position. The coaches were so desperate to find a consistent performer there that junior college transfer Fabian Dodd, originally recruited as a defensive lineman, made the switch this month and got a serious look. Another concern is avoiding the injury epidemic that plagued last season's team. Already this summer, starting wide receiver Andy Kohler was lost for the season with a serious knee injury. Let's pray that's not an omen.
6. What is ISU worried the least about heading into the season?
Based on everyone I've talked to, including Coach Mac, I think it's safe to assume the chip is back on the shoulder. This is one area where the team's extreme youth is actually an asset. Graduation cleaned out the riff-raff, and this year's squad is hungry to earn respect and playing time. They've taken to McCarney-ball quite well, thank you very much. Practices have been physical and guys are getting after it, even when the execution is haphazard. Mac cares about the bottom line, but he also cares about character, discipline, and chemistry. Those areas were sorely lacking in abundance last fall. No one inside the Jacobson Building is predicting a stark, instant turnaround in terms of wins and losses. But everyone does believe this team will be fun to watch develop and more closely embody the values that brought respect back to the program.
7. Any chance the Cy-Hawk Trophy's hiatus from Ames lasts just one year?
Very little, I'm afraid. It's just too much to ask of such a young squad in week two of the season. Think about it, Bret Meyer's first road start of his career could come on the road against a team riding a 12-game home winning streak that has also been ranked #8 in the final polls the past two seasons. Of course, who was the last away team to walk out of Kinnick Stadium with a win? You guessed it. It was Iowa State back in 2002.
8. Which Cyclones will have breakthrough seasons?
Seth Zehr has undergone a complete body transformation, and is poised to pair with Aaron Brant to form a solid duo on the right side of the offensive line. Last season we forecasted Brett Kellogg in this space, but it turns out we were a year ahead of schedule. The tight end will have more of a role in this new offense, and I'm going out on a limb and predicting that Kellogg catches at least one touchdown pass this season. Todd Blythe might already be the best receiver in the program, and he's just a redshirt freshman. Defensively, expect a big season from Nick Leaders, who slumped as a sophomore following a standout freshman campaign. DeAndre Jackson and Stevie Paris have taken the challenge from the incoming JUCOs and are holding onto their starting spots.
9. Which newcomer(s) will make the biggest impact this fall?
This one's easy—Barney Cotton. His presence and attitude have already had a profound impact on the program as a whole, not just the offense. Cohesion is back on the coaching staff, and accountability is back on offense. Beyond Barney, Terrance Highsmith should emerge as a playmaking wide receiver right away and Tim Dobbins is the type of athlete at linebacker the Cyclones have lacked over the years. And then there's the three freshmen running backs: Greg Coleman, Jason Scales, and Tyease Thompson. Stevie Hicks can't carry the ball every down, so one of those youngsters has a chance to log solid minutes.
10. Any Cyclones have a shot to earn postseason individual awards?
Tyson Smith was third-team All-Big 12 selection two years at rush end, and he returns to that slot now that Berryman is incarcerated. The defensive line he's playing on this year figures to be much better than that one, so he could garner some more postseason acclaim. Ellis Hobbs is probably the next best chance at cornerback, followed by Tony Yelk (if he can stay healthy). Don't overlook Stevie Hicks, either. He will open some eyes this fall.
11. What's the scariest game on ISU's schedule?
When you're riding a 10-game losing streak, the scariest game is the next one. The opener against Northern Iowa, ranked #6 in Division I-AA, has been the subject of much preseason trash talk both from Panther fans and Hawkeye fans masquerading as such. UNI took the Cyclones to the brink last fall, the first crack in last season's foundation. A loss would be devastating, but even a closely contested win would raise skepticism heading into the Cy-Hawk clash.
12. What game is "rake-your-leaves" Saturday?
Since the leaves will be just turning color during the September 25th bye week, you'll have to put off the raking and bagging until November 20th. That's when Iowa State is scheduled to take it's annual woodshed shellacking courtesy of Kansas State. It's a rite of passage each autumn you want to make sure you make arrangements to miss.
13. What is ISU's best chance at an upset this season?
A young team unlikely to qualify for a bowl bid could provide some positive momentum heading into a breakout 2005 by upsetting overrated Missouri at home Thanksgiving weekend. The nationally-ranked Tigers could be playing for the North Division title, but they're talent level isn't so superior to Iowa State's that they can bank on a win in Ames in the home-finale.
14. Will the Cyclones win a conference road game?
Iowa State last won away from home in the Big 12 on November 17th, 2001. That was a rout of Kansas. The conference opener is at Oklahoma State, which will be a tough trip for the Cyclones. The next road game is at Colorado, which isn't as good as it used to be but is probably still good enough to beat Iowa State at home. That leaves October 23rd and a trip to Baylor as the date the Cyclones win one wearing the white jerseys.
15. Who is ISU's most underrated player?
It may be oversimplifying things, but not by much, to say that Iowa State has run the ball much more effectively the past two seasons when Luke Vander Sanden is in the lineup and healthy. He's suffered through a myriad of injuries over the years, so let's pray he can keep it together as a senior.
16. Who is ISU's most overrated player?
I'm not begrudging Jason Berryman's accomplishments as a true freshman. At times, he seemed to be the only player worth paying to see late last season. However, ever since his Dorf on crime episode a few weeks ago some members of the media have made his potential loss for the season a bigger deal than it should have been. This guy wasn't Reggie Hayward yet, let alone Lawrence Taylor. Plus, the man behind him was All-Big 12 before he got hurt, affording Berryman the opportunity to play a pivotal role. Had that not happened, we would be writing about Berryman as a potential breakout player for 2004, not wondering if his absence sends the season to the toilet.
17. Which Cyclone looks the best in uniform?
It's Stevie Hicks – for now – until we get a chance to see the burly Tim Dobbins in full Cyclone regalia on September 4th. Hicks is as fine a physical specimen as the Cyclones have had under McCarney.
18. Which Cyclone provides the best sound byte?
Move over J.J. Moses, here comes Ellis Hobbs…without the alligator skinned shoes. Hobbs has never been shy about telling you what he thinks, but with the underclass shackles now unbound the senior captain is as glib as one of McCarney's players could possibly get away with.
19. What scout team player will earn rave advanced reviews this season?
I'm predicting Bobby Chalk will redshirt despite some impressive play-making skills he's already shown in preseason practice. He's already going to miss the first game because of a DUI suspension, and the JUCO transfers provide adequate depth. That should leave Chalk free to man-up on ISU's best receivers in practice this fall. Another potential scout team superstar is tailback Tyease Thompson, if he ends up redshirting.
20. What chance does ISU have of returning to a bowl game?
Without drinking too much of the Cardinal-and-Gold Kool-Aid, I could make a fairly realistic case for a 6-5 record and minor bowl bid. But that would take just about everything breaking ISU's way. However, there's simply too many variables for this young team to overcome for me to go out on that limb in late August. I'd say the chances are less than 30 percent that ISU can pull it off.
We can't finish filling this space without congratulating ISU's very own Cael Sanderson for capturing the gold medal in wrestling at the Athens Olympics last week. Cael is a class act all the way, and his level of excellence transcends whether you like his sport of choice or not. ISU obviously made a shrewd move a few years back when it took the necessary steps to keep him in the Cyclone family. Now it has a legitimate claim on the only U.S. wrestler to win an individual gold medal.
To commemorate Cael's accomplishment, we're scrambling at the last minute to put together a tribute to Cael for the next issue of CN Magazine. Stay tuned for more details shortly.
Time is Running Out
September 1st is the deadline to register for our free football season ticket giveaway at Des Moines Mitsubishi, located at 9060 Hickman Road in Clive.
You must go to Des Moines Mitsubishi to register. We'll announce the winners on the air during the 4 p.m. hour during Deace in the Afternoon on September 2nd. If your name is drawn, you'll be able to pick up your season tickets at Des Moines Mitsubishi on September 3rd, just in time for Saturday's season-opener.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network.)