Cyclones look to build off strong season
AMES — Last season, the Iowa State University football team had its most wins since 2000 and the fourth win in a bowl game in program history with a 21-20 win over Memphis in the Liberty Bowl to finish the year.
After experiencing so much success in his second season as head coach, Matt Campbell said at the Cyclones’ annual media day event on Tuesday that his team now has to deal with the expectation of success, rather than the hope for it.
“Last year it was primarily dealing with the opposite, it was ‘nobody thinks we can win here, that’s kind of the deal,’ but now it’s the opposite,” Campbell said while addressing the media in the Bergstrom Football Complex. “It’s so positive, how do you not allow that to infiltrate your program and your team. I think that’s equally as hard of a challenge, especially in the world we live in today. The only way to handle it is handle it head on.”
That expectation of success is valid too, considering what the Cyclones return from last season.
It all starts at the quarterback position, where sixth-year senior Kyle Kempt comes into camp at the top of the depth chart for the first time in his college career.
Campbell said even heading into fall workouts he was expecting a competition at the signal-caller position, but Kempt has blown him away.
“I’ll be honest with you, I think the light really came on for me practice one this fall camp,” Campbell said. “It was fun to watch Kyle this summer, you saw a very confident young man. I think one thing that allowed him to grow was to say ‘how do I evaluate what I did well and what I didn’t do well, and how do I drive myself forward?’ What’s been really fun for me just watching these early practices it’s like ‘wow, who is this kid,’ in terms of he’s confident, he understands this system, he’s another year in and has made those mistakes so he’s not making those mistakes any more. He just looks like a really polished football player.”
Kempt said it’s been a long ride for him to get to the position he is in now, and he is more prepared now than he ever was earlier in his career.
“I’m better equipped to handle the communication that it takes for that position, to communicate with the receivers, the running backs, the tight ends, the O-line, just things that coach wants,” he said while talking with media on the field at Jack Trice Stadium. “I want to be a second coach on the field and I think that coach Campbell expects that from me, so from that aspect I need to be able to relay the information to the rest of the team but also see things on the field during games and make those adjustments.”
There will be a relatively intact group keeping Kempt upright throughout the season, as the Cyclones return three of five starting offensive linemen this year, though there is a Jake-Campos-sized hole at left tackle.
Likely filling that hole will be junior Julian Good-Jones, who has played nearly every position on the offensive line for Iowa State in his first three years.
“Athleticism is the first thing you talk about when it comes to Julian Good-Jones, he certainly has very high-end athleticism,” Campbell said. “And that has allowed him to have flexibility in playing on the offensive line. He’s played center, he can play either guard spot, he can play either tackle spot, the one nice thing for us is we are trying to find who are the best five linemen and putting everybody in position to be successful, and he gives us that ability to do that.”
Also returning to that group are Bryce Meeker and Josh Knipfel, who locked down the right side of the line last year.
While the big boys move people around up front, junior David Montgomery will be toting the rock behind them as the consensus starting running back. Though he has been named to both the Maxwell Award and Doak Walker Award watch lists this summer, Montgomery said he still comes to practice every day looking to fight for his spot.
“I don’t know I’m the premier running back, no one knows who is where, no one has a secure starting job,” Montgomery said. “That’s why coach Campbell has us exercise every day, make sure we pay attention to the detail and you know what you’re doing so you can earn the right to play. I’m going to keep working for the boys around me, it’s a competition but at the end of the day we are trying to make each other better. I’m in the room every day, day in and day out, making sure those guys are good mentally and physically. Regardless of who’s out there, as long as we are winning and playing good football it doesn’t matter.”
Montgomery finished with 1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground last year and he has a strong stable of backs to spell him if needed though, including senior Mike Warren, junior Sheldon Croney and sophomore Kene Nwangwu.
Holding down the top receiver spot will be Hakeem Butler, back for his junior season after an impressive sophomore campaign that saw him go for 697 yards and seven touchdowns through the air as a deep threat.
Campbell said even though Butler will have big shoes to fill in replacing Allen Lazard, he showed what he was made of in last season’s campaign.
“From his standpoint the proof is in the pudding,” Campbell said of Butler. “You are talking a guy that makes explosive plays, plays downfield, maybe was the best guy doing that for us last year. I think for him it’s confidence in his game, how do you become in that consistency level and continue to pick that up in another level.”
Butler said what helps him with his confidence is the level of consistency that Campbell brings to practice and has in his first three years with the program.
“From day one he has always kept the same motto, he hasn’t wavered on his standard or what he expects,” Butler said. “We had to raise and get to his level. Everyone wants that consistent piece in your life when you don’t know what’s happening from day to day.”
Playing with a quarterback he trusts has helped in a long way too, and Butler said he and Kempt have built quite a report in the offseason.
“That win in the dark motto, that’s a real thing we live by,” he said. “Kyle, for a quarterback he don’t care if his shoulder is hurting, he wants to throw all day.”
Kempt said it’s easy to want to keep throwing the ball when you’ve got guys like Butler and Montgomery to deliver it to.
“I have to play within myself and do my job and get the ball to them, it’s as simple as that,” Kempt said. “I don’t have to do too much, that’s the nice part about that.”
On the other side of the ball, the Cyclones will be fierce along the defensive line and in the secondary. That is mainly due to the return of JaQuan Bailey — the fifth-best sack artist in the Big 12 last year — at defensive end and corners Brian Peavy and D’Andre Payne.
Campbell said what his defense brings to the field that he’s excited about is each player’s flexibility in playing many positions.
“I think we have gotten faster. I think we have the ability to continue to add some dynamic pieces to the puzzle,” Campbell said. “It’s still about critical situations in defensive football and the neat thing for us is we have the ability to show a lot of different things and help put ourselves in the best situation. Eliminate matchup concerns that maybe would exist in the game but also give us the ability to create matchups for success.”
Bailey plays an important position in the Big 12 as an edge rusher, considering the high-powered passing offenses that the conference boasts.
“It’s really not that hard but you have to really be in really, really tough shape,” Bailey, who is eight sacks away from becoming the Cyclones’ all-time leader, said. “You have to drink a lot of water because if you don’t your body will start shutting down by like halftime. Teams are really fast so during practice you have to be able to somehow do the same thing, but at the same time you have to be smart. Coming to practice every day is just a grind.”
While Peavy, a preseason all-Big 12 selection along with Bailey, and Payne are both experienced at their spots, they are leading a group of guys that aren’t nearly as used to playing on this level. Campbell said they are relishing that chance to imprint on young guys, like sophomore safeties Lawrence White and Greg Elsworth.
“One of the things that is going to be really fun for those two, and I’ve already seen this, is their legacy as great players is really good, but there is some great talent in that room right now and their legacy to come back and say ‘how those guys work, how those guys play, what their attention to detail is, I was part of that for those guys,'” Campbell said. “Both Brian and D’Andre, that’s something I love about those guys. They have given way more of themselves than they’ve ever taken from the program.”
The leadership doesn’t stop in the defensive back room though, as Campbell said probably the biggest difference between the start of his third season and his first one is what his players are bringing to the table leadership-wise.
“When you become an elite-level football program, 90 percent of the time it’s the players leading, 10 percent of the time it’s the coaches,” he said. “I know all these coaches across the country think we have the answers and the kids want to hear us, but really they don’t, they want to hear each other lead them and talk to them and buy into it. I think that is that culture shift you are trying to get it to, and certainly I hopefully think we are trending in a positive direction that way.”
Iowa State starts the 2018 season on Sept. 1 when it welcomes in FCS power South Dakota State to Jack Trice Stadium at 7 p.m.