Iowa State went into the spring with a quarterback battle, and while the Cyclones have yet to announce their starter, sophomore Grant Rohach (6-foot-1, 224 pounds) might have seized the job with a strong spring game performance. Rohach completed 22-of-38 passes for 171 yards and rushed for another 20 yards and a score. He did throw two interceptions, but both came late, and his numbers were considerably better than Joel Lanning (7-for-14 for 44 yards) and Sam B. Richardson (8-of-13 for 55). While Rohach's performance certainly made news, so too did the fact that Richardson, last season's primary starter, was the third quarterback to appear (behind Lanning as well) and worked with the second and third teams.
While the first-team offensive line looked like a pretty strong unit at times, defensive ends Cory Morrissey (6-4 260) and Mitchell Meyers (6-4 262) had a field day, putting up a combined 8.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks in the game. Quarterbacks were downed with one-hand touch, so that helped, but it was still a pretty monster performance by those edge rushers.
Iowa State has 83 combined starts among its top six offensive linemen, with center Tom Farniok emerging as the leader of the offensive line after 35 starts himself. Right tackle Jacob Gannon (12) and left tackle Brock Dagel (11) also have double-digit starts to their credit. Overall, the offensive line is big, with all five projected starters standing 6-4 or taller and weighing 300 pounds or more.
Keep an eye as well on tight end E.J. Bibbs (6-3 261), who received second-team All-Big 12 mention a year ago behind the now-departed Jace Amaro. And between running backs Aaron Wimberly (5-9 174) and DeVondrick Nealy (5-0 190), and wide receiver Quenton Bundrage (6-2 191), the Cyclones should have some offensive weapons to build around.
Defensively, things aren't nearly as rosy, though Morrissey (6-4 260) is a solid player with a good motor at defensive end, and Nigel Tribune (5-10 183) assumes a permanent starting spot after seven starts at cornerback a year ago as a freshman.
It's not easy trying to find a replacement for tackling machine Jeremiah George, and the Cyclones have a two-man race to fill George's enormous shoes. JUCO transfer Jordan Harris (5-11 241) was George-like in junior college, leading the NJCAA in total tackles with 124. He was in for the spring where he battled with redshirt freshman Alton Meeks (6-2 249), a former quarterback who has excellent length and range. Both will play this coming season, and will likely spend some time on the field together.
Dale Pierson (6-3 260), a defensive end who had 12 sacks a year ago at Pasadena Junior College will push Meyers for a starting end spot, while JUCO end Gabe Luna (6-1 255) earned a spot in the rotation this spring.
And while most people don't focus on the punter, Iowa State must replace steady All-Big 12 boater Kirby Van Der Kamp after what seemed like 10 years of eligibility. His likely replacement is a true freshman, Colin Downing, out of Whitefish Bay (Wisc.).
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Iowa State hired former Kansas head coach Mark Mangino to be offensive coordinator, with Mangino's son, Tommy Mangino serving as the wide receivers coach and Mangino's former recruiting coordinator, Brandon Blaney, getting the offensive line job. It's an attempt to finally bring Iowa State's offense up to par with the defense put out on a yearly basis by Paul Rhoads. Look to see Iowa State continue to run spread, as the Cyclones have the last several years, but with more attention to detail.
On the bad side, the Cyclones had a chance to enter 2014 with one of the league's better groups of defensive tackles, but two potential starters were dismissed, with David Irving booted after getting arrested and Rodney Coe kicked off for violation of team rules. The Cyclones did get recent help from the return of Brandon Jensen, a nose guard who initially quit the team in the offseason.
Key safety recruit Devron Moore, a three-star product from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, left to go back to Oklahoma due to homesickness, and isn't expected back with the team. At worst, Moore was expected to be a key rotational piece in the secondary.
Oddly enough, because the Cyclones have struggled here in comparison to other Big 12 teams, it's probably Iowa State's collection of offensive weapons. Texas fans will remember running back Wimberly, who rushed for 117 yards and scored two touchdowns on the Longhorns. Add in fellow running back Nealy, one of the Big 12's most underrated playmakers in Bundrage, a steady slot in Jarvis West (5-7 177), a reliable receiving tight end in E.J. Bibbs and the addition of U.S. Army All-American Allen Lazard, a 6-foot-5 wideout, and Iowa State finally has a group of skill-position players who can do some damage.
With the attrition listed above, it has to be defensive tackle. Iowa State spent last season using three pretty good defensive tackles, with Coe and Irving looking ready for stardom. Instead, neither will suit up for the Cyclones, and even though Jensen returns, he might not be more than a depth piece. Iowa State does seem to like sophomore nose guard Devlin Cousin (6-1 295), but other than Cousin, there isn't a lot there. This could have been a major strength, but instead, it's a serious question mark.
To a lesser extent, it's unclear just what Iowa State has at cornerback opposite Tribune, where Kenneth Lynn (5-10 166) and Sam E. Richardson (5-7 189) will duke it out. The Cyclones aren't very experienced in the secondary as a whole.
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With the attrition at defensive tackle, it's probably JUCO transfer Terry Ayeni. Longhorn fans might remember the name, as the New Mexico Military Institute product received a Texas offer from the previous staff. Listed at 6-2 275, Ayeni will be asked to slide inside for the Cyclones, where he could supply some pass-rush from the three-technique spot. How quickly he adjusts to his new role — Ayeni was a defensive end in junior college — will be key for the defense's development.
The Cyclones should be a different team than they have been the past few years, a squad capable of putting up points behind an experienced offensive line and a bevy of offensive weapons. But the flip side of that is that they likely won't be able to get the stops on the other end of the field that Rhoads is accustomed to, with a weakness at defensive tackle and a lack of experience in the secondary.
So what's the expectation? Put Iowa State down for five wins at this point, though it might take some stellar coaching to get them there. The schedule is truly front-loaded, meaning they'll have to brave a rough September and October and leave enough in the gas tank to take some winnable games down the stretch.
But if nothing else, this should be a more fun team for Iowa State fans to watch.
Up Tomorrow: West Virginia