10. The status of Tony Yelk
He may be maddeningly inconsistent on field goals, and a half-second slower than you'd like getting those punts away, but there's no doubt that when Tony Yelk's foot connects with the football the result is usually a booming blast. Last season he missed all of his senior year with a mysterious and painful hip flexor that plagued him throughout a fall when he was expected to handle all of the kicking chores. Dan McCarney didn't know week-to-week if he had the services of his guaranteed touchback man, but now Yelk is back as the result of a surprising sixth year from the NCAA. Stay tuned to see how much of the kicking duties he takes over this spring.
9. Who's the next man in at cornerback?
Replacing team MVP Ellis Hobbs, who was also named first team All-Big 12, wasn't going to be easy under any circumstances. As a senior, the NFL-bound Hobbs made more big plays in one season than any defensive player at ISU in recent memory. First dibs on Hobbs' vacated left cornerback slot probably will go to returning starter DeAndre Jackson, who will switch over from the right side. Jackson is bigger and maybe faster than Hobbs, but that doesn't necessarily mean better. Plus his switch now leaves a hole at the other cornerback slot and the contenders for it are dwindling. Josh Hargis and Bobby Chalk "voluntarily" left the program before the Independence Bowl. Then Jerry Gair – a promising safety who was going to get a long look at corner this spring – became embroiled in an off-field legal matter. That gives LaMarcus Hicks, a nickel-back last season, an opportunity to earn a starting spot before several incoming freshmen arrive this fall.
8. Gauging Bret Meyer's development.
After being named MVP of just the second bowl win in ISU history as a redshirt freshman, there is no viable competitor to Bret Meyer's perch as the starting quarterback this spring. He is the man in charge, no doubt. However, he still needs to improve on two key areas to realize his vast potential. First, his completion percentage needs to be up around 58 percent, not the 53.1 percent rate of completion he finished last season with. That's accuracy, decision-making, and mechanics; particularly on the long ball where several times last year he missed big plays downfield in the passing game. That's typical for a quarterback with Meyer's limited experience, by the way. What's atypical for a quarterback with Meyer's limited experience is the poise he has already demonstrated. Now that poise needs to translate more to leadership, which began to happen late in 2004.
7. Spelling Stevie Hicks.
After a two-year hiatus, the 1,000-yard rusher returned to McCarney ball. It took a while for Stevie Hicks to get going last season behind a revamped offensive line, but he finished strong. Three of his five 100-yard rushing efforts came in the final five games, when he averaged 109-yards rushing per game, capped off by a career-best 159 yards in the Independence Bowl. Hicks was the workhorse last fall, carrying the ball on 270 of ISU's 536 rushing attempts last season, which is about 50 percent. That's not a bad ratio for a starting tailback in the Big 12, but when you consider the second-most frequent rusher was Meyer, it's easy to see that finding a reliable second tailback is a priority this spring. Last year's stellar recruits have suffered attrition. The status of Tyease Thompson is unknown. Brandon Gunn has been moved to defense. Webster Patrick didn't make it academically. Greg Coleman part-time experiment with fullback is over. That leaves Jason Scales, who was beat up most of last season, with a chance to remind us of why he was arguably the greatest prep running back in Iowa high school football history.
6. Two holes to fill on the offensive line.
Luke Vander Sanden and Cale Stubbe, two stalwarts of last season's most-improved unit, have exhausted their eligibility and moved on. Returning are three solid starters—Aaron Brant, Seth Zehr, and Korey Pence, who really developed last year. Stepping in for Luke and Cale are Minnesota transfer Scott Stephenson, who some inside the Jacobson Building thought was the best offensive lineman on campus last year, and junior college transfer Scott Fisher, who will be joined by his twin brother Paul in the fall. Scott Fisher is a pure tackle, so either he will replace Stubbe or he will take Brant's spot on the right and Brant will move to left tackle. With Zehr moving to center, Stephenson is slated for either guard slot opposite Pence. This could change in the fall if Paul Fisher is as good as advertised. Suddenly Barney Cotton has some quality competition after doing it piece-meal last spring.
5. Who takes advantage of Todd Blythe's injury?
Hopefully it wasn't an omen. After a surprising turnaround season that was keyed by staying relatively injury-free, the Cyclones got some bad news during winter workouts for 2005. Todd Blythe, perhaps the most irreplaceable player in the program, tore his ACL during indoor pass-catching drills. He is expected to be ready for the start of the season, but that leaves a huge void for the spring. Talented and inconsistent Jon Davis returns as a starter at flanker, but the graduating Todd Miller is vacating his slot receiver spot. One player who has a chance to really make a move now is Milan Moses, signed in the same recruiting class with Blythe. The younger brother of J.J. certainly looks the part, and now has a chance to prove he's a playmaker. Ryan Baum, who was impressive last spring, will see a lot of time as well. We'll also get our first glimpses of redshirts Chris Brown and R.J. Sumrall. Then there is another option…
And that other option could be none other than quarterback-turned-receiver Austin Flynn, who will be experimenting at a new position this spring. Flynn was a U.S. Army All-American quarterback three years ago, but couldn't beat out Meyer. He's simply too good of an athlete not to be on the field and the absence of Blythe gives him a chance to strut his stuff. Then there's quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback again Terrance Highsmith, who will get more reps under center. He was impressive for one week at quarterback last fall when he transferred from junior college, now he'll be given more time to display his skills.
3. Step up spring.
Prior to the start of spring practice, McCarney met with 21 players to tell them this was their spring to make a move on the depth chart. "Crap or get off the pot" was the phrase Mac used. It's time for these 21 players to go from sideline towel-wavers to gameday contributors. Mac didn't name names, but just about any knowledgeable ISU fan could probably figure out who most of those 21 players were, and several of them are offensive linemen recruited from instate that are in danger of seeing their window of opportunity close.
2. Handling the expectations.
This spring the Cyclones face a new burden: unprecedented expectations. ESPN.com has the Cyclones in its pre-spring Top 25. Cyclone Nation collectively believes that with so many key players returning from last season's breakthrough this could be the best football season in school history. Winning the outright North Division title doesn't seem so far-fetched, especially since ISU was just inches from doing it last year. With Iowa coming to Ames, maybe an upper tier bowl game is a reasonable goal as well. For years ISU has flourished with the "no-respect" chip on its shoulder, now it's the hunted and not the hunter. This is a dynamic this program has never really faced before, so it will be interesting to see how they deal with it. McCarney is aware of this, which is why he took the time right after the Independence Bowl victory to confront the increased expectations for 2005.
1. It's all about leadership.
Nobody really knew what to expect from ISU football at this time last year. The Cyclones were at a major fork in the road, coming off a 2-10 disaster that followed a school-record three consecutive bowl appearances. Yet while we weren't paying attention, the rising senior class was busy laying the foundation for the turnaround behind the scenes, and letting it be known that they had no plans to go out as losers. Their leadership carried through the summer, and then during a midseason slump that almost wrecked the rebound before it started. That senior class was small in numbers, but more than made up for it in character. This year's senior class is even smaller in terms of numbers, and we really don't know who its leaders are yet. If Nick Leaders, Tim Dobbins, Steve Paris, and Nik Moser are ready to assume the mantle of leadership then it needs to happen this spring so it can carry over to preparations for the season.