First, some general opening comments.
Once the rain disappeared and the sun came out, the sloppy play went away and I was very impressed overall by what I saw. This team is leaps and bounds ahead of where they were last year. In fact, when I asked one assistant coach if he agreed with me on that he said "absolutely." This is the fifth straight Iowa State spring game I have attended, and this is the best team on both sides of the ball (place kicking aside, more on that later) that I can recall.
It was good to see several outgoing seniors come out to watch the action. I saw Ellis Hobbs, Cale Stubbe, Erik Anderson, Tyson Smith, and Cris Love in attendance. I would estimate the crowd somewhere around 3,000, not bad given the soggy weather from the outset. And what we didn't see was the Hawkeye Nation back up their bluster about representing at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday. In fact, I don't recall seeing a single Hawkeye fan there. Perhaps the weather scared them off.
And lest there be any ongoing debate within Cyclone Nation or the program, I was standing right on the goal-line on the game's final play and Terrance Highsmith crossed the plane of the goal-line on his quarterback sneak for what would've been the white team's winning touchdown. It was almost as if the officials were instructed not to give it to them it was so obvious.
Now, to some more specific observations...
This just in: Bret Meyer is real, real good. This was the second time I saw him this spring, and it's obvious that he'll pick right up where he left off in the Independence Bowl. He's a fluid runner, calmly in control on the field, and has improved his accuracy. The one area where I'd still like to see him develop more is going through his progressions in the pocket. But once he's flushed from the pocket he is very effective.
In terms of his backup, I feel much better about that slot after Saturday than I did at the Wednesday practice. Highsmith was scintillating all afternoon, and I'm guessing that Saturday was easily the most impressive showing he's had at ISU. It didn't even seem like the battle with Kyle Van Winkle was close, although to be fair to Van Winkle he was under tremendous pressure from the defensive front until he was eventually knocked out of the game.
We already know what Stevie Hicks can do, so we got a somewhat limited glimpse of him on Saturday. No use adding any tread to those tires for an exhibition game. In terms of the backups I thought Jason Scales performed the best. He showed good vision and surprising toughness between the tackles. However, watching from the field I didn't sense the explosion that made him one of the greatest in the history of Iowa high school football.
Greg Coleman is clearly number three, despite his obvious physical gifts. Watching from the sidelines I got a chance to find out why that is on one particular drive. Coleman frustrated the coaches by blowing a couple of assignments. I would expect to see one of the high school tailbacks see action this fall.
Ben Barkema played well as the starter at tight end, but all eyes were on new H-back Walter Nickel, the incoming junior college All-American. He still has work to do on his blocking, but yesterday you could tell he's going to give ISU a weapon it hasn't had in years. On at least two occasions I noticed him running open deep down the middle of the field, but Meyer wasn't able to get him the ball.
The run blocking was much better than the pass blocking on both squads. The white team offensive line was seemingly unable to keep the red's defensive front four out of its backfield in almost every passing situation and had numerous botched snaps. The red team offensive line was more effective than that, and fared even better when it came to opening holes for Hicks and Scales. Fabian Dodd, in particular, had a good afternoon. Considering Scott Fisher and Scott Stephenson were hurt, and Paul Fisher isn't here yet, Barney Cotton has to feel he's way ahead of last year.
This is the deepest and most gifted position in the program. Jon Davis was spectacular most of the afternoon. If he cures his occasional lack of focus he's going to have a monster season since opponents will double-team Todd Blythe more now that he is a known commodity. Speaking of Blythe, he's out with that knee injury but I watched him moving around on Wednesday and I will be stunned if he isn't ready for the season. He's also added a good 10-15 pounds of muscle.
All eyes were on former quarterback Austin Flynn, who made the switch to wideout to rave reviews this spring. He looked good running routes and catching the ball in traffic. He received one of the afternoon's loudest ovations on his first reception. Ryan Baum had a big day, and one big play, while displaying his typical toughness. R.J. Sumrall, who has been singled out for outstanding play this spring, showed quickness but dropped an easy pass early that drew the ire of the coaches.
Aside from this otherwise glowing report there was some bad news—red zone scoring. Of course, that's been an issue in Ames several seasons now, unfortunately. It got better in the second half, but in the first half Cotton was unhappy that his team was settling for field goals and vocalized those thoughts with clarity, especially since it was the primary offensive focus throughout the spring.
This unit was raising Cain all afternoon and really overmatched the white team's offensive line. Brent Curvey spent a lot of time in the offensive backfield, as did Shawn Moorehead. That's no surprise considering that duo were two of the top performers throughout the spring. Nick Leaders was his usual solid self, and even Cephus Johnson got into the act by pressuring the quarterback a couple of times. Several youngsters, like Collins Eboh, played a lot as well. Ask Van Winkle how tough these guys were on Saturday. It's scary to contemplate how good they could be had Jason Berryman, who will be released from Story County Jail today, not run afoul of the law.
Tim Dobbins is all man, and he really backed that statement up on one play when he just casually tossed aside Coleman – no slouch as a physical specimen himself and a former state wrestling champion – like he was a rag doll. However, that wasn't the best hit of the afternoon. White team linebacker Jamar Buchanan earns that distinction. Nick Frere looked like he could use some more weight, and I don't recall Adam Carper standing out, although he's been the surprise story of the spring.
It was tough to judge how effective the starters were in the game. Given the consistent pressure of the defensive front – and let's pray that continues right through to the fall – they weren't asked to cover that often or that long. Remember that Highsmith did most of his damage on the run. Then there was the white team secondary that was repeatedly torched by Meyer, which speaks to the disconcerting lack of depth that has already been discussed prevalently this spring. Here's what we know: Nik Moser and Steve Paris are as fine a pair of safeties as there are returning in the Big 12, and DeAndre Jackson is poised for a breakout year. What we don't know is if LaMarcus Hicks will hold up for an entire season as a starter and how ready the incoming freshmen are to play right away.
We didn't see any kick and punt returns, per ISU spring football tradition. Yet we did see Tony Yelk have a good afternoon. He was booming punts throughout the game, and he drew one of the game's loudest ovations when his 29-yard field goal ended a streak of place kicking misery that looked all too familiar to citizens of Cyclone Nation. Yelk also was the most vocal cheerleader on the white team sideline.
And his kicking simpaticos certainly needed a pick-me-up after an abysmal showing. Two shanks and an upright were the results of ISU's first three field goal attempts. One of those misses came from Brian Janssen, who continues to chase windmills in Ames. One has to admire his tenacity and desire to be a Cyclone despite the adversity he's faced already, but at some point you have to think that Charlie Brown will figure out that Lucy is going to pull that ball away.
If this team stays relatively injury free, like it did last year, and develops a kicking game, like it did last year, then it will head into the season-finale on November 19th with a chance at the Big 12's North Division title. The only game on the schedule you figure the Cyclones to be decided underdogs in is at Texas A&M on October 20th. This has the potential to be a very special season at ISU.