Walters: There are more positives than negatives, especially for a team coming off a 2-10 season that lost 10 consecutive games and wasn't very competitive in a lot of those games. The most important thing that Iowa State had to accomplish in the non-conference portion of its schedule was to regain that swagger, confidence, and look of a team that goes out there expecting to win. That was really missing last year. This team has done a great job of doing just that.
For a young team to accomplish that with two wins and taking Iowa down to the wire has really shown me a lot. It's a very young team, but they've proven that they like each other and they have the character that, if they get in a hole, they feel like they can still win and come back. We saw that last week. There are all kinds of positives.
CN: How about some areas for improvement?
Walters: The offensive line has to continue to improve. I don't think it would have been realistic at all to expect a night-and-day difference between the offensive line from last year to this year. I think there has been vast improvement in that area, but it's not going to be an overnight process where all of a sudden they become one of the top offensive lines in the country from being one of the worst a year ago.
It's a process, but I have all kinds of confidence in the job Barney Cotton is doing. You can see the improvement every week when you watch this team. You can see tangible improvement in their effort, and I think it's going to continue to get better. But it had a long way to go, and you're going to face really physical defensive lines in the Big 12 Conference. They're going to have to step up and be ready for that.
Some people forget that it's still a very young inexperienced group. Luke Vander Sanden being hurt, you put Brian Lutter in there. He's playing his guts out, but he was a walk-on. You look at the right side of the ball and you've got two sophomores (Aaron Brant and Seth Zehr) that are still learning. They're going to be good football players but are still learning. There is youth and inexperience, but there seems to be a feeling among that group that they're confident in what they're being taught.
If they can get better, then the ground game can get better. Then you can see a really balanced attack, and Iowa State do a lot more offensively.
CN: Will more consistent play out of the quarterback position help in improving the run game as well?
Walters: You're seeing Iowa State having to use the pass more to set up the run, as opposed to the other way around. I think they want to get back to using the run to set up the pass.
But I think the quarterback production has been very good. If you add up the stats for Austin Flynn and Bret Meyer, you're going to see some pretty good stats. If you compared it to one guy starting at a lot of other schools, those numbers are going to look pretty good. I think they've both done an outstanding job of leading the team, and not getting selfish with the situation. They've handled it great and it's been a productive way to do it. It will continue in the near future that that's the way it's going to be for a while.
They obviously have a playmaker in Todd Blythe. They have dependable guys developing in Jon Davis and Todd Miller. They've got some weapons, so they need to throw the ball some. But I do believe that they would like to get back to having a 100-yard rusher every week. It's really been a priority. They need to get that running game going again.
CN: You mention that the two-quarterback system will continue for a while, but would you like to see the roles reversed with Flynn starting and Meyer coming off the bench?
Walters: That's a really tough call, and one for the coaches to make. I think one thing we will see is Austin getting more snaps. Whether it comes in a starting role or not remains to be seen. He's obviously proven that he deserves to get some more snaps and I think he will. I doubt that the coaches will switch things up a whole lot. I think Bret Meyer will continue to start. But that's only my guess.
I would think they will continue to stay with what's working so far, and that's having Bret start. Austin has that good reliever's mentality to come in there and finish the thing. I think they've both done a fabulous job of taking what's out there and doing the best with it they can. I am really impressed with both of those young men and they way they've handled things.
CN: Do you believe the first three games were a feeling-out process of sorts with Cotton and his offense? Will we now start to see him shifting gears and focusing on what has worked well for this group through three games?
Walters: I think what they wanted to do was run first, establish the run, and be able to pass when teams were not expecting it. I think what's happened instead is they've been forced to pass the ball a little bit more. When they've run the ball well they've kind of done it when their passing game is going to strong. Using the pass to kind of set up the run is the way it's turned out.
Ideally, this is a coaching staff that would like to do both effectively. I think they can get to that point. We see enough weapons and talent out of the quarterbacks and running backs that they can balance it 50-50 and do both very well. I'm sure that's going to be a focus over the next couple weeks to try to get to that point.
I think the biggest thing they've wanted to do is just not turn the football over, and allow their defense an opportunity to keep them in games. They needed to play smart football and stay in games anyway they could. They've shown the ability to do that.
Walters: I'm not sure it has a lot to do with Dobbins; I think Robertson deserves the opportunity to play. That's not a knock on Dobbins at all. I just think Dobbins has played terrific. But the fact is Robertson was a guy coming back that's been in the system. He has proven he can play at this level, and needs to be on the field some. That's a great problem to have. You have two super middle linebackers, in my opinion, and I think they're both going to continue to play a lot.
Robertson did some things better against Northern Illinois than Dobbins did. He's maybe better in certain situations at keeping an eye on a running back coming out of the backfield, or a tight end or whatever the responsibilities are. It seemed like Robertson had a better handle on that.
But Dobbins is a playmaker and has to be on the field, too. If you watch tape of the games with Iowa and Northern Iowa, when running backs have a lot of momentum running forward and they get to Dobbins, that momentum stops right away. They do not go any further. He is a great run stopper. When he hits you, you're not going to drag him forward for five or six yards. When he hits you, that's the end of the play.
CN: It's been pretty remarkable that this defense has played at a high level – for the most part – with some starters missing time due to injury.
Walters: You consider that the second half over in Iowa City when that defensive line played so great, they didn't have Brent Curvey or Cephus Johnson out there. Jason Berryman obviously was not out there. That's three of the four that they went into the season expecting to be their front four. Yet they went out and played lights out.
Shawn Moorehead has stepped up and played really good football, to the point where when Cephus Johnson is healthy and ready to go, he's going to be pushed really hard to get that spot back. Moorehead isn't going to give it up without a fight.
Nick Leaders has just been sensational. I think if you had to pick a team MVP to this point in the season, you'd be hard-pressed to vote for a better guy than Leaders. He's been there every game and his legs are fresh, which I'm sure was not the case at the end of last year. He's making plays and that's great to see. He's a guy that's hung in there through thick and thin, and now he's getting rewarded.
Curvey is going to be an outstanding football player. I like him a lot. And what a great story to see Tyson Smith move back to that position and be given a game ball on two occasions? He's played lights out. Mac is really thrilled with his progress.
Going into the season, everybody thought the secondary was a question mark. Well, the secondary has played pretty well. They have had some moments when they were vulnerable, but name me a secondary in college football that isn't at times. But this group has also had a lot of moments when they played great.
I have been thrilled with the defense. Even though they gave up a lot of big plays against Northern Illinois, they also made a lot of big plays. They had four interceptions and scored twice. When they can put the whole package together, this can be a very good defense. I went into the season expecting it to be the strength of the team and I think it definitely is right now.
CN: This team's conditioning and stamina has also looked to be strengths through the first three games.
Walters: I think Matt McGettigan has done a great job with the conditioning of this football team. Mac has even said that conditioning could have been a factor in the Northern Iowa game. Iowa State had more depth and that's why he wanted that game played at 1 o'clock in the afternoon instead of at night. He really felt they could wear out Northern Iowa and they did. I don't know if they wore out Northern Illinois or not, but they still looked like they were going strong at the end of that football game. They definitely had a better fourth quarter than the Huskies did. They outplayed Iowa in the second half in Iowa City.
You look at the three games and they've out-played their opponents in the second half. That's got to be a real plus and real credit to Matt McGettigan for the job he's done with that group. I would say their conditioning has been excellent.
CN: Given the struggles of other Big 12 North teams, are you optimistic that the Cyclones can win more league games than expected?
Walters: I was hopeful for a five- or six-win season. I felt like if things fell into place that that was very possible. I think that now people can look at it and maybe set their sights higher. But even though there are no monster games on the schedule like Texas or Oklahoma, there are still some very tough games.
It's not going to be easy to go into Manhattan or Stillwater. It's not going to be easy to beat Nebraska or Missouri. Texas A&M looked awful one week and they came back and looked great the next couple weeks. That's going to be a tough game.
Am I optimistic? Absolutely. But am I being cautious in my optimism? Yes, because we know how tough the Big 12 Conference can be. Everybody was so down on the Big 12 North because of the upsets that happened that one weekend, but look at what happened the following weekend. Every one of the Big 12 North teams won. All of a sudden you look at the standings and that North doesn't look so bad anymore.
I think it's a wide-open race. Every team in the conference has shown some weaknesses, but they also have a lot of strengths. It's going to be a fun race, and it's nice to be talking about Iowa State as a part of that race. We'll see how it plays out. It's going to be a very fun conference football season.