BIGGEST STRENGTH — Running Back
Maybe the best anecdote for the Cyclones' depth at this position is that Shontrelle Johnson, the team's second-leading rusher last year tore his ACL in December, and yet the Cyclones aren't expected to miss a beat. Back is the tandem of James White and Jeff Woody, who combined to rush for almost 700 yards and about five yards per carry. But it was sophomore DeVondrick Nealy who stole the show at the spring game, rushing 18 times for 142 yards and two touchdowns, capping off a productive spring. And JUCO transfer Aaron Wimberly also showed the explosiveness that made him such a highly sought-after prospect. The Cyclones are legitimately four-deep here without even considering that Johnson could be back by the season's start.
BIGGEST QUESTION — Linebacker
Any time a team must replace the combined production of A.J. Klein and Jake Knott faces a huge question mark, not just in terms of numbers, but also in terms of leadership. Klein and Knott were been two of the top three linebackers in the league; even with Knott missing the final four games plus a bowl game, he still tied for fourth on the team in tackles and joined Klein on the All-Big 12 first team. Now, the weakest part of that corps, Jeremiah George, has to serve as the most stable part. George could be joined by a pair of redshirt freshmen in Luke Knott, Jake's brother, and Darius White. Also keep an eye on defensive tackle, which must replace a star in Jake McDonough. The Cyclones are a bit better equipped there with Brandon Jensen, some young talent and incoming JUCO transfer Rodney Coe.
BREAKOUT STAR — Sam Richardson
Richardson was a revelation late last year before struggling in the bowl game, picking apart Kansas with his arm and West Virginia with his legs. In those two contests, Richardson completed 36-of-58 passes for 412 yards and seven touchdowns to no interceptions, while rushing 29 times for 162 yards and another score. His accuracy came and went a little bit at times, but if Richardson's spring game was any indication — 9-for-12 for 156 yards and two touchdowns to one interception — he should be accurate enough to be more than just a feisty running threat. With the running backs on hand, Richardson should be able to give the Iowa State offense a dynamic threat out of the pistol that Paul Rhodes hasn't had at the quarterback position.
KEY EARLY ENROLLEE — Wimberly
An NJCAA second-team All-American at Iowa Western Community College, Wimberly was heavily recruited by schools like Penn State, Iowa, TCU and Boise State. But he chose to play in Ames, and enrolled for the spring. Despite the Cyclones having a deep rotation (see above), Wimberly figures to factor in immediately. He brings a level of home run threat that hasn't been there in the running game for a few years now, and he displayed some of that in the spring game, rushing 15 times for 89 yards. Don't be a bit surprised if Wimberly becomes the change of pace to a steady performer like White.
It was a strange spring game for those fans of the Cardinal and Gold, with the offense putting up 535 yards. The Cyclones have been undeniably more defense-intensive the past few years, which is to say that the offense hasn't held up its end of the bargain. But don't be surprised if the balance shifts back more in favor of the offense this year. The defense returns just four starters and losses like McDonough, Klein, Knott and safety Durrell Givens — though the last loss should be somewhat mitigated by Deon Broomfield moving back to safety. Still, it's hard to picture Rhoads not putting at least a decent defense on the field this fall … that's kind of what he does. And with a better offense, the Cyclones certainly have what it takes to go bowling yet again, and potentially even make a run at up to eight wins.