Big 12 spring check-ins: Iowa State

Ian Boyd

Member Who Talks (A Lot!)
Staff member
Jan 14, 2014
Ypsilanti, MI
There's a lot of optimism in corn country about the Cyclones. After coming up short in the Big 12 Championship Game they blistered Oregon in the bowl game and then retained the coaching staff and nearly the entire roster for another run in 2021.

Last offseason the Cyclones had to alter their practice plans along with everyone else because of COVID, but head coach Matt Campbell noticed they were fresher, deeper into the season potentially as a result. So this spring he's employing a less contact-heavy set of practices designed to put fewer miles on his players' bodies and hopefully have them healthier and stronger for the fall. This is an interesting experiment for a necessarily development-heavy program, although Iowa State's approach is different than some.

Whereas many a team recruiting at Iowa State's level (2021 class ranked 58th with an average rating of .8494) will aim to recruit raw athletes and try to mold them into good football players, the Cyclones often take a different approach. They take solid athletes who are good football players and try to mazimize their athleticism while leaning into their pre-existing skill and aptitude for the game.

If TCU under Gary Patterson is heavy on the "take raw athletes and mold them" side of the equation, perhaps the Tom Osborne Nebraska Cornhuskers are on the other side. The 'Huskers would load up on local kids who were maximized as finely-tuned cogs in the I-option offensive machine and only need premier athletes at a handful of positions. Iowa State is closer to the Osborne end of the spectrum under Matt Campbell.

Now, with all these players back from 2020 they appear to be in position to put an even more finely-tuned offensive/defensive machine on the field for 2021. Here's how things are looking right now.

Infrastructure stress test: Offense

This is where the Cyclones appear strongest going into 2021, despite it being one of the few places across the lineup where they are losing a significant piece. The piece they are losing is Dylan Soehner, who was a perfect ancillary for a team lacking high level athleticism and skill at offensive tackle. At 6-7, 270 Soehner was a borderline tackle who never put on the weight needed to play full-time on the line because he had enough route running skill, overall quickness, and the hands to also serve as a receiving tight end.

With Soehner moving around and shoring up the blocking schemes on the perimeter it was easier for Iowa State to help keep Brock "pump fake" Purdy upright to throw on play-action and easier to manipulate matchups in the run game for Breece Hall. For 2021 the entire offensive line is back, including super senior left tackle Sean Foster, and then PFPurdy and Hall return as well.

The Cyclones also get back tight end Chanse Allen, a solid blocker and solid receiver, and tight end Charlie Kolar who's a solid blocker and excellent receiver. It sounds like the plan next year is to just get better play from Kolar and Allen and not structure the offense around having a Soehner, since they don't have anyone else who's quite as good a blocker while still offering something in the receiving game. There's depth here as well, behind Kolar is converted quarterback Easton Dean who gets some praise every spring as a "just wait till you see this guy" sort of receiving prospect.

Iowa State's offensive line seems to get a little better every year, mostly due to the infusion of Campbell-recruited talent, but has yet to be particularly good. This year they should get a bit better once more if they can just get a little luck with injuries. Trevor Downing was their best lineman heading into 2020 and he missed most of the season, Derek Schweiger has been a stalwart contributor who is a year better, and center Colin Newell is highly experienced. Then outside at right tackle they return Joey Ramos and Jake Remsburg, the latter of whom can be seen here pancaking a Baylor Bear.

Maybe most importantly, the Cyclones return all of their chain-moving pieces. Breece Hall is back, his fellow big time recruit from the 2019 class Jirehl Brock is getting strong reviews as a runner, and PFPurdy is back with favorite inside targets Charlie Kolar and slot Tarique Milton. The efficacy of Iowa State's crossing routes is likely to be boosted by all the returning chemistry and their protections can only get better up front in the five-man blocking schemes (six and seven man protections without Soehner are another matter).

All of this is a major reason why the Cyclones are getting picked to return to the Big 12 Championship Game.

Infrastructure stress test: Defense

Things are fairly solid here as well. One thing the Cyclones have done extremely well under Matt Campbell is find a way to build a defense which can withstand the spacing and stress of Big 12 offenses while still playing to the strengths of the personnel you tend to find in the Midwest region.

In particular, recruiting players to Ames, IA you're going to have the chance to get a lot of kids who are big, versatile, blue collar, and athletic but not necessarily skill athletes. Iowa is famous for cranking out tight ends, linebackers, and defensive ends who go on to the NFL. Guys in the 6-2 to 6-5 range who weigh in from 210 pounds to 270. Essentially, the sorts of guys Big 12 offenses thrive at putting into space and run/pass conflicts and then running off the field.

The Iowa State 3-3-5 "flyover defense" mitigates those issues by playing a lot of drop eight defense, using three deep safeties in the pre-snap alignment, and disguising where there will and won't be coverage help on the field. This design has allowed them to play three true linebackers on the field and set up 6-3, 250 pound Mike Rose of Ohio to be Big 12 defensive player of the year in 2020 while playing a nickel linebacker position where other teams are using a quick twitch defensive back who might weigh less than 190.

Iowa State gets back Mike Rose this season and all three linebackers, although I maintain there may be a chance for an upgrade at the middle linebacker spot where O'Rien Vance patrols the interior gaps.

Nose tackle Joshua Bailey is gone, along with defensive end Latrell Bankston, but Iowa State returns a good nose in Isaiah Lee and big end Eyioma Uwazurike, who's a super senior. They also have an early enrollee freshman named Howard Brown who played some quarterback in high school and ran a 4.8 who's 6-2, 325 or somewhere in that vicinity. The plan will obviously be to turn him into a highly destructive nose tackle who blows up plays before they can start.

On the back end where they play three safeties the Cyclones have another super senior in Greg Eisworth, Isheem Young who played well as a redshirt freshman last year, and then maybe Villanova transfer JaQuan Amos in the boundary. Eisworth has the most athletically demanding role playing as a part time slot corner in their quarters coverages. He's better when he's more of a hash safety but unless Amos or someone else can step in there, he'll have to remain out wide. Between Eisworth and Young there's a lot of skill and knowhow back there.

Space force speed test: Offense

This is probably where Iowa State has the greatest challenge, here or perhaps on defense. While they can load up for days on solid, versatile kids in the Midwest there aren't as many explosive skill athletes in Iowa and the surrounding areas. They're often trying to find special players as one of the last dogs to the bowl in DFW or South Florida. This was shrouded early on because they inherited Allen Lazard, a rare instate talent Paul Rhoads was able to maintain despite interest from Notre Dame and other regional powers, and Hakeem Butler who was an unknown 2-star from Houston who blossomed in Ames.

Iowa State has to be nails on their early evals and spread a wide net to find guys like Hakeem Butler and they often have to be lucky. They got in early on PFPurdy because the poor kid had mono as a junior and wasn't much to look at until he was a senior. Will McDonald was playing in a Milwaukee suburb in a poor home trying to help his family while playing football and wasn't recognized or getting maximized by local coaches.

The key receiver for 2021 is Xavier Hutchinson, who had a solid freshman year in JUCO that lead to Iowa State jumping all over him before the breakout sophomore year which drew in offers from places like Oklahoma and Nebraska. Behind him they also have Daniel Jackson, a San Antonio star who's the brother of OU/TCU defensive end Mark Jackson, Jr. Jackson would have been a much higher rated recruit but for a car wreck he endured in high school which almost killed him. This is how Iowa State finds space force weapons.

Anyways, Hutchinson was pretty good in 2020 and the hope is he can be great in 2021. I've also written on how getting Tarique Milton's speed back in the slot this year could be a major boost for the Cyclones.

Left tackle they still plan on turning to behemoth Sean Foster, who's 6-8, 320 pounds or so and a super senior. He's tough to get around and has improved with his pad level in the run game. I think both Ramos and Remsburg are more athletic and talented for playing on the edge but it takes real time to turn a 300+ pound kid into a technician on the edge.

Iowa State relies pretty heavily on controlling matchups and landing body blows with their superior play inside at guard, center, tight end, the run game, and intermediate/middle dropback passing game. If they do it well enough, it'll set them up better when they want to take shots outside or hold up on the edge in protection.

Space force speed test: Defense

Same story on this side. The Cyclones really have to study hard to find guys who can be difference-making athletes in space and most of their strategies on both sides of the ball are designed to get as much value as possible out of controlling the middle of the field.

That said, they've had success finding some guys over the years. JaQuan Bailey now graduates after an illustrious career with Campbell as a really strong pass-rusher in their 3-down fronts and last year they were able to pair him on passing downs with ultra-natural edge rusher Will McDonald. This was a massive factor in the Cyclones going to the Big 12 title game. Out at corner they had Brian Peavy once upon a time who was able to match receivers 1-on-1 and allow them to work the weak safety into the run fits. This is also extremely useful because the weak side of the Cyclone defense can still get isolated and attacked even in some of their drop-eight schemes.

Iowa State has certainly been in worse shape. Will McDonald is back, guaranteeing the three-man rush is solid, and their top cornerback Anthony Johnson is hoping to make a leap as a senior with a couple season's worth of starts. Additionally, it sounds as though the Cyclones intend to help out their pass-rush by bringing the linebackers more next season. This plan works so long as Johnson can hold up in the boundary without requiring a lot of safety help. If the Cyclones are able to get anything close to Rodarius Williams or Brian Peavy play from Johnson while still fielding McDonald up front and then bringing four or five-man pressures with their out.

In summation

Iowa State has a formula they like to follow for controlling games in the middle of the field and helping whatever skill athletes they can nab in recruiting find success when matched up 1-on-1 in space with Big 12 opponents. The 2021 Cyclones are very well poised to follow this formula and they also have as many as three "space force guardians" who might be among the best in the Big 12 in Xavier Hutchinson, Anthony Johnson, and Will McDonald.

It all adds up to an exciting year in Ames. If they can finally beat the Hawkeyes in the non-conference they will be exuberant heading into Big 12 play.