Iowa State wasn't expecting to win the Big XII North or anything like that last season, but their 2-10 season definitely came as a big disappointment to the loyal Cyclone fans in Ames. The big surprise of possibly the whole college football offseason was when Iowa State's coach Gene Chizik got the head coaching job at Auburn, even after having a terrible 5-19 record in 2 years as Iowa State head coach. Nevertheless, the Cyclones enter 2009 with a new head coach, Paul Rhoads, and the hope for a possible turnaround that comes with a new coach. Will Iowa State be able to turn it around enough to have a chance when they travel to Columbia late in the year?
Quarterback:Austen Arnaud entered 2008 without any experience starting at quarterback, so his passing totals of 2,792 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions weren't too shabby. Now entering his junior year, Arnaud is being counted on to be the star and leader of the Cyclones offense. His size is imposing (6-3, 220 pounds) and he also has the ability to take the ball down and make a play with his feet, recording 401 yards and 5 TD's on the ground last year. Obviously, his TD to INT ratio must go up this season if Iowa State wants to have an improved offense, but no matter what he will be the big playmaker of the team this year. Redshirt freshman Jerome Tiller might also get a couple of snaps per game to try and change the pace at quarterback with his top-end speed, so watch out for him.
Running Back:Alexander Robinson finished 2008 with respectable numbers in his first year as a starter, recording 703 yards and six touchdowns behind an iffy offensive line. Robinson isn't going to bring anything too special to the table, but at least Iowa State will have someone that they can rely on to be a consistent producer on the ground in order to take pressure off of the passing game. The most interesting player on offense will be back-up running back and former Florida recruit Bo Williams. The former 4-star recruit features good speed to go along with his 6-0, 217-pound frame, so the Cyclones may have something good here. It may take him a bit to get acclimated to the offense, but when he does he could break out into a top playmaker on the team, something that Iowa State desperately needs. Short yardage back Jeremiah Schwartz weighs in at a hefty 238 pounds, but he is said to have pretty nifty footwork, so his role could expand this season.
Wide Receiver:Sophomore Darius Darks is being counted on by Cyclone fans to provide a reliable target for Austen Arnaud and it looks like he will be able to do that after catching 49 balls in his freshman season. Marquis Hamilton is a dependable senior who will be crucial to the passing game because he creates a big mismatch in the secondary with his 6-4, 228-pound frame. Other targets for Arnaud include former 4-star deep threat recruit Sedrick Johnson, 250-pound H-back Derrick Catlett and 6-6 tight end Collin Franklin. It seems like Arnaud will have a great variety of targets to throw to this year, but will any of them establish themselves as deep threats, something you need to have in the offense heavy Big XII?
Offensive Line:This is no doubt the weakness of the Cyclones, which could spell trouble for what seems like a promising offense. The big boys up front for Iowa State are really big (averaging 6-4 and 327 pounds), but they haven't performed well in past seasons. The best lineman on this team, Ben Lamaak, was going to be tried out at left tackle this year, but instead the Cyclone coaching staff decided to keep him at his natural right guard position (smart move). Instead, Kelechi Osemel will get the start at left tackle even though he has troubles moving his feet in the passing game. Overall, this unit just was not very good last year and they return most of the starters from a year ago. The hope is that they can make significant improvement, but don't expect them to turn into even an average group.
Defensive Line:The key part for the Cyclones on defense this year is getting production from the defensive line. Rashawn Parker must get better after being counted on to be a pass rusher in 2008 only to go and record one sack in the entire season. He must be quicker off the edge to make the opposing quarterback have to worry about what's coming behind him. On the other end, Christopher Lyle looks to step into a starting role after playing well as a backup in spurts last season. His size (6-4, 250) makes him look the part, but now he must be a consistent force on the line. Nate Frere is the most solid aspect of the line at nose guard because of his experience and production. Austin Alburtis' job will be stopping the running game at defensive tackle, something he seems capable of doing. His job is crucial because the Cyclones rushing defense last season was not good at all.
Linebackers:The tackling machine of this team will be Jesse Smith. The 6-0 senior is your typical high-motor middle linebacker that seems to always be around the ball. He could improve his pass rushing ability, but he is still a fairly solid player. Josh Raven and Fred Garren, both seniors, will start on the outside. This group is obviously experienced, but do they have room to grow? They didn't really make too many plays for the defense a year ago and I don't expect them to all of the sudden find out how to get pressure on the quarterback or stop the run, but they will be solid tacklers and wont make too many mistakes.
The bright spot of a terrible year last year on defense was freshman corner back Leonard Johnson. Now entering his sophomore year, Johnson will be expected to be a shutdown corner for Iowa State, a role that he seems more than able to handle. He was a solid tackler and a pretty good playmaker in the secondary. Kennard Banks, David Sims and Michael O'Connell are all currently listed on the depth chart as first-year starters in the secondary for the Cyclones. Smith stands at only 5-9 playing free safety, but he has established himself as one of the surest tacklers in the secondary and will be one of the better players on the defense. Sims is a JuCo transfer with a lot of talent (former Oklahoma commit), so expect him to make some good plays this year. Overall, the secondary seems to be better this year after ranking in the bottom 5 in pass defense last season.
Obviously, this team doesn't have too many bright spots after going 2-10 last season, but who knows? Something could click with the new head coach that gets this team going. This will be the final home game for the Tigers this year, but it could end up being a bit of a trap game with the Kansas game on the horizon. For, I expect the Tigers to be clicking on all cylinders with all of their young guns and I would hope that they could take care of the Cyclones at home. If not, it could get ugly in Columbia.