Cyclones looking to make strides in Campbell’s second season
AMES — In both the NFL and college football, it is said that a player makes their biggest improvement from year one to year two in the league.
Well the Iowa State University football team is looking for a similar improvement this season in head coach Matt Campbell’s second year on the job, and they have plenty of talent returning to do so.
During Thursday’s media day, Campbell said having a year under his belt at the helm of Cyclone football has he and his coaching staff well ahead of the curve compared to the fresh start last season.
“Probably the biggest thing for me is really knowing who our football team is,” Campbell said during his press conference in the Bergstrom Football Complex Thursday. “A year ago, we were six months in to a brand new football team and trying to create trust and belief in the walls of your program and trying to uncover what your players can and can’t do. Now, not only do we have a really good understanding of that, but also the ability to give them the tools over the last six or seven months to enhance their own development.”
While a 3-9 record in his first season wasn’t exactly the record any ISU fan was looking for, Campbell said there were a lot of positives to take away from year one, specifically with the Cyclones winning two of their last three against Big 12 opponents Kansas and Texas Tech.
“I think the end of last season, winning some of those games and, for me, losing some of those close games, those were invaluable learning experiences for our football team,” Campbell said. “What we were able to do this offseason is really understand that this is what we are talking about, it got to the point in the fourth quarter of some of those games and we were inches away or there was a play here and a play there that we don’t make, but a year ago we weren’t putting in the time and effort in to making those plays.”
Adding to Campbell’s point, the Cyclones lost five games last season by 10 points or less, something he hopes to correct now that they’ve had a year to work on those issues closing games out.
Another thing that should help Iowa State compete this season is the knowledge Campbell has of Big 12 opponents. Coming from Toledo, Campbell hadn’t gone through the rigors of a power five conference schedule, so now having a year of experience of what it takes to compete each week against some of the best teams in the nation, Campbell said his team will be more prepared.
“Everybody has a great quarterback at this level, you are not going to play a quarterback that can’t beat you, so I think at the end of it that is probably the biggest lesson learned from the Big 12 in year one,” he said. “You have to play some of these guys and understand what they are trying to do structurally. Any time that happens and you get to see it for a year that’s a positive, but I think it is so much more about us and about learning who we are rather than learning about what the Big 12 is.”
That focus on growth of his players and development of his team is something Campbell spoke highly about, even going so far as to say his player’s growth is more important than season win totals.
“For me, the future of this program has zero to do with winning and losing,” Campbell said. “Obviously, at the end of it, winning and losing will take care of itself. There is no greater competitor in this room than Matt Campbell, I will cheat at golf if I have to to win. Yeah, we want to go play in bowl games. Yes, our goal is to be Big 12 champions someday, but for us to get there we have to learn what the process is and lay a foundation to continue that. Success will take care of itself.”
One more for Lazard
Of course, in order to build that successful foundation, Campbell needs players to build off of, and luckily for him he returns one of the best receivers in the Big 12 in senior Allen Lazard.
Last season, the Urbandale native had a whopping 1,018 yards receiving and seven touchdowns off 69 receptions. Numbers like that had Lazard contemplating a bid for the NFL draft in April, but Campbell said ultimately he decided to come back for one more season to secure his legacy as a Cyclone.
“Allen has had a great career here,” Campbell said of his 6 foot 5 inch receiver. “In three years, in terms of personal achievement there have been a lot of positive things Allen has been able to contribute to this football program. I think he is a young man that, when he made the decision to come back here, it was more than just personal achievement. It was about leaving a legacy, about giving that opportunity to maybe change the tide of this football program.”
Lazard agreed with that sentiment during the player interview portion of media day, saying what he will be remembered for most as a player is how he contributed to success on the field for ISU.
“I am just focused on winning,” he said. “These past few years and the tough times we have been through, all the wins we have let slip out from under us, that is what fuels me and drives me and pushes my teammates. It makes me want to push them even more. At the end of the day, my legacy will be defined by what I do this season and how we succeed.”
Legacy can put a lot of pressure on a player during their senior season, but Allen said pressure is something he has lived with every day as a football player, and ultimately the way he handles that is by focusing on the task at hand and putting in the work.
“One thing I have kind of learned is helpful is getting into a routine,” he said of his approach. “Waking up, going through the same routine, making sure I check out the same things that I have always done. Come in early to practices for treatments and that type of thing. I try to handle this as professional and business-like as I can.”
One-two backfield punch
Toting the rock for Iowa State this season will be the running back duo of sophomore David Montgomery and junior Mike Warren.
Montgomery was break out star of last season, starting the last four games for the Cyclones and going or 169 yards against Kansas and 141 yards in the final game against West Virginia.
What Montgomery brings to the team, Campbell said, is much more than his talent carrying the football.
“The starting point for David is off the field,” Campbell said. “One of the things that is really unique about David is he is one of those guys that, when you talk about having a program of sustained success I have always believed your best players have to be your hardest workers. David embodies that in every way, shape and form. He is relentless at his craft. He is a guy that we almost literally have to get him out of this facility at night because he wants to be here constantly.”
Of course Warren was the incumbent running back last season, and after a strong freshman campaign in which he ran for over 1300 yards, he struggled to put up the same kind of production, leading to Montgomery taking over the starting role.
Campbell said, while that could foster some resentment between the two backs, their relationship actually grew stronger through the competition.
“In our society today and the culture of college football, where everybody wants the football, you see this situation where David and Michael start sharing carries a year ago and Michael, right or wrong, has a lot of publicity coming in to last season,” Campbell said. “Now all of a sudden they are sharing those responsibilities, and that could have easily gone a negative root where one guy ends up leaving. These two, that almost brought them together.
“That took a lot of unselfishness and really a lot of true caring for each other for that to happen. You just don’t see that really happen much, then all of a sudden those two are working out together all winter long, then they are watching film together all winter long. Those two have made each other better, and that’s what competition really is. You compete with each other to be the best, you make each other better and then all of a sudden together, collectively, you have success.”
When asked about their relationship, Montgomery echoed his coach in saying he and Warren build off each other’s strengths to ultimately make the team as strong as they can.
“As a unit, me and Mike together are a crazy duo,” Montgomery said. “The way he stays calm and relaxed in every situation, he really pushes me to stay calm in those situations too. There have been times where I wanted to give up or times where it got tough but he was the one who picked me up saying ‘you got to keep going, it will all be worth it in the end.'”
Taking the reins
After a season of sharing time at quarterback with Joel Lanning, incoming junior Jacob Park has full control of what should be a potent offense to start the 2017 campaign.
Campbell said watching Park grow into the role of starter has been a site to behold.
“Jacob, the nice thing for all of us is we have seen some of his high moments, some of the moments where he has played really good football,” he said. “When you watch that, you see a guy who has the ability at this level in a power five conference to play at a really high rate. We already know what him playing his best looks like, now it’s a matter of taking those last six months and creating that consistency and taking those rough edges and smoothing those out and really giving him the confidence of ‘here’s our offensive playbook, here are our expectations of you on a day-in-day-out basis.'”
Park, who started the final two games last season for the Cyclones, said now that the starting role is his he is more focused on honing his skills.
“It is night and day, I come out here to practice to see if I can be perfect, not if I can be good or be great. I want to be perfect with every read, every decision and every throw,” he said. “I’ve been close a few times but my preparation has put me at a whole new understanding of the game, and it’s fun.”
When asked what other quarterbacks he looks to as inspiration for his game, Park said Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is who he tries to emulate.
“I watch his game and I think I play a lot like him,” Park said. “I watch his foot work and I try to break down some of the stuff he does. I like how, if you ever watch him play he is real calm, even when he’s in the pocket he just never seems like he’s flustered. I just appreciate his whole demeanor and how he plays the game.”
Making the switch
Though he won’t be taking snaps behind center any longer, Lanning will be playing a vital role for ISU, just on the other side of the ball.
This spring, Lanning made the switch to linebacker for the Cyclones, though Campbell said his days on offense aren’t quite finished.
“Joel Lanning is going to play offense this year for us,” Campbell said. “I think how much is going to be dictated by situational football as we get into it. We already know what he can do for us on offense, for me it is a matter of starting to put the pieces of the puzzle together of what are we, who are we, who are our best players on that side of the ball? Situationally, where does it make sense to bring in Joel in to the game for us to have success? What do we want to have him do? I think a lot of that, as fall camp continues to develop and we see what we are as a football team and what we need, will certainly dictate that a little bit.”
As for Lanning, while he knows he will get some touches on his original side of the ball, he said he is fully focused on getting better on the defensive end.
“I have to know the defense more,” he said. “We put in a small portion of what the defense is in spring so I am trying to take it in slowly every day and I am slowly getting better. These first few practices haven’t been anything crazy, but I know I am learning a lot and trying to get better every day.”