Team preview: Iowa State
The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 Iowa State Cyclones, exclusively on Insider.
Iowa State might not occupy the same rarified air as Big 12 foes Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado, but don't ever use "mediocre" when describing coach Dan McCarney's program. That word was mentioned in the spring, and McCarney, the dean of Big 12 coaches who's beginning his 12th season, didn't like it one bit. "There's stuff out there, [people] talking about mediocrity with this program," said McCarney, whose teams have finished with a winning record five of the last six seasons. "I don't know what people have been smoking lately that would say something like that -- some bad weed I guess. "When you go back over the last six years, and know that there's more wins in the last six years (39) than there have been since Teddy Roosevelt was President -- and we play a little tougher schedule now than when Teddy was in office -- we've got good things going in the program. "We've got a good plan. We've got good kids and we've got a good staff. I make no apologies. Going into my 12th season at Iowa State, I've seen administrators and coaches from Iowa State come and go so fast it'll make your head spin in the Big 12 -- and I'm still here, I'm still standing, I'm still the head coach at Iowa State, and damn proud of it." And that was in mid April. Imagine what McCarney is like on the third Saturday in September. He's a whirlwind who has taken command of a program and made it upwardly mobile. Last season, defense was the Cyclones' calling card. They allowed just 102.7 yards per game, more than 35 yards under the previous school record. Iowa State allowed 19.2 points per game, third in the conference and 20th nationally. That was the Cyclones' best showing since 1980 and was keyed by a Big 12 leading 22 interceptions. McCarney has built something solid. The Cyclones have won seven or more games in five of the last six seasons, an accomplishment for a program that has won that many games only 16 times in the 114-year history of the program. Iowa State has done much to raise its profile over the last eight seasons. The key to building its image may have been the Cyclones' ability to get the best of Iowa. Under Hayden Fry, the Hawkeyes dominated the series for years and made Iowa State an afterthought in recruiting and from a competitive angle. But when the Hawkeyes slumped after Fry's departure, McCarney grabbed hold of the series and has held on to it like a pit bull. Iowa State has won six of the last eight games between the two schools. "We know how much this series means and how important it is to beat them every time we take the field," McCarney said. "We are not about to relax. It sets a tone when you can beat a team like that." McCarney understands that and has the arrow pointing up. If some young defensive players can step up and replace several departed veterans, there's no reason to think it won't be more of the same this season.
The Cyclones may be reliant on their defense, but their offense rests squarely on the shoulders of junior quarterback Bret Meyer (6-3, 208). After a solid freshman season, Meyer continued to emerge in 2005, passing for 2,876 yards with 19 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Meyer has a strong arm and is patient in the pocket. He doesn't force the ball into coverage, instead buying time with his quick feet, waiting for receivers to get open before getting rid of the ball. McCarney was pleased with the improvement Meyer made from his freshman year to his sophomore season, and he expects even better this season. "Bret was so much better as a sophomore than he was as a freshman," McCarney said. "And there is no reason to be satisfied with just that. If he can improve that much after his first year, what can he do as a junior? Take it a step further and what will he be like as a senior? "He has accomplished quite a bit, but he has two years left. He is very solid mentally and physically and has a very thorough grasp of our offense as we head into two-a-days. That will allow us to take this offense quite a bit further than we have to this point. Bret is a great student of the game and understands the big picture. The light has gone on for him, and he has the kind of understanding you need to do the job we want him to do." Backup Kyle Van Winkle (6-6, 217) returns for his senior season after recovering from a broken collarbone suffered in the 2005 spring game. He did manage to make two brief appearances last season but didn't attempt a pass. Van Winkle is not extremely mobile, but he can see over the top of the defense and spot open receivers. McCarney was impressed with Van Winkle's showing this spring. "He's played the best football of his career this spring," McCarney said. "I expect a real good year. He should be able to push Meyer and come in and do the job if we need him."
Injuries played havoc with Iowa State's ground game last season. First, the No. 2 tailback, junior Jason Scales (5-9, 200) injured a knee and had to sit out the season. Things got worse when senior Stevie Hicks (6-2, 212) got hurt in the preseason and wasn't at full strength for the rest of the year, missing three games and playing sparingly in three more. The Cyclones had to get by at tailback with a converted fullback and a true freshman, and the results were predictable. Iowa State averaged just 110.7 rushing yards per game, 96th among Division I-A schools. Hicks, who managed to rush for 545 yards and four touchdowns last season, was back at full strength in the spring. Scales, still on the mend, sat out. "He is more of a power guy than anything else," running backs coach Tony Alford said of Hicks. "He is at his best when running between the tackles. He can make a few guys miss and he can also win the battle one-on-one with linebackers. "Is he a breakaway back? No. We'd like him to be faster but it is what it is. He gives us everything and he is quite productive when he's healthy -- and he's healthy going into the season. He is also a very good blocker, which is a priority around here." Sophomore Jason Harris (5-11, 201) will serve as Hicks' backup. He saw limited action as a freshman a year ago, carrying the ball 11 times for 40 yards. The coaching staff likes Harris because he hits the hole quickly. "Jason Harris is definitely our No. 2 right now and he's getting better and better and better, with his reps and experiences and scrimmages," McCarney said. Scales, a sophomore, saw some action in 2004, serving as a backup to Hicks and in short-yardage situations. He finished fourth on the team in rushing yards with 92. Scales established personal bests in a game against Baylor in carries (12), yards (54) and long run (17 yards). He also scored on a 1-yard run. Senior Ryan Kock (6-1, 239) is a battering ram at fullback. Last season he carried the ball 54 times, and 13 of those carries resulted in a touchdown. He finished sixth in the Big 12 in scoring (6.5 points per game). "I trust him completely with whatever we ask him to do," Alford said of Kock. "He proved himself last year with his ability around the goal line. When you pound it in 13 times, that's saying something. "He's more than just a short-yardage guy. He's versatile. We were looking at him in one-back sets and he can handle it. He can catch the ball and he is very smart." Junior Steven Ebner (5-10, 229) is listed as Kock's backup on the team's two-deep, but he didn't have a carry last year.
If the Cyclones have been thin at running back, they don't have that problem with their receiving corps. Start with senior Austin Flynn (6-1, 200) who last season caught 56 passes for 624 yards and three touchdowns. "Every coach wants an Austin Flynn on their team and thank God we have him," McCarney said. "He will go back on kick returns, he will help on special teams and he gives everything he has when it comes to route-running, blocking and running the ball. He is a special kid and he is one of those players that legitimately enjoys practice and plays like it every time he is on the field." Junior Todd Blythe (6-5, 205) may have more natural talent than any other Cyclone wide receiver. He is a big-play specialist who scored nine touchdowns in 2005 and a school-record 18 for his career. Blythe grabbed 51 passes for 1,000 yards, using his height and wingspan to go over the top of opposing defensive backs. Blythe averaged 19.6 yards per reception, a figure that ranked second nationally among pass catchers who caught at least 4.1 balls per game. "Todd has already reached All-Big 12 status and he was very deserving of that honor," McCarney said. "He already owns some records here at Iowa State, but there is room for improvement. He watches the same tapes that we do, so he knows that as well. He is very receptive to the coaching and he wants to get better. He wants to be a complete receiver and run all the routes that we ask our receivers to run. He wants to be a good, physical blocker and not known only as a guy who can go up and compete for the ball when it is in the air." The Cyclones have another big target in senior Jon Davis (6-4, 200), who caught 41 passes for 319 yards and two scores a year ago. Junior Ryan Baum (5-10, 190) is hungry to get back on the field after getting injured in the fifth game and missing the rest of the season. He is a legitimate threat as a punt returner -- averaging 11.8 yards on nine returns a year ago -- and McCarney is hoping for a significant contribution as a receiver. Sophomore R.J. Sumrall (6-1, 200) had 20 catches a year ago. The Cyclones have talent at the tight end position. Junior Ben Barkema (6-3, 245) is a big, tough widebody who caught 18 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns last season. Barkema has good hands but needs to get more aggressive as a blocker. Senior backup Walter Nickel (6-3, 235) combined with Barkema to give Iowa State its most productive season from the tight end spot since 1985. Nickel had 20 catches for 263 yards and two scores. "Barkema and Nickel have shown me that they can play football," McCarney said. "We want both of them to get bigger and stronger and more physical as blockers. We went to them a lot last year, and they are easily the best pair of receivers we have ever had at the tight end position at Iowa State. They need to keep their tight end speed but get stronger, more physical and more dominant in their blocking."
It's clear that this unit has an awful lot of work to do this year if Iowa State is going to have a balanced offense. "There were lots of things we really did well on the line last season," McCarney said. "[But] we clearly have to improve on our running game. We were 96th in that area last season and that is not what Iowa State football is all about. We also have to do a better job of protecting the quarterback. We gave up way too many sacks ." Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Barney Cotton has a lot of work to do with this unit, but he does have legitimate talent. Senior center Scott Stephenson (6-4, 305) won All-Big 12 honors after transferring from Minnesota. Stephenson is the kind of center who will take on his assignment and then head downfield and block another defender. Stephenson had off-season shoulder surgery and didn't play in the spring, but he is the key to the Iowa State offensive line. Senior right tackle Aaron Brant (6-7, 320) has started 34 straight games and was All-Big 12 honorable mention the last two seasons. Senior left tackle Scott Fisher (6-7, 335) and senior right guard Paul Fisher (6-7, 325) are twin brothers. Paul Fisher has a good shot at starting if he can hold off freshman Reggie Stephens (6-4, 315) during the summer. Rounding out the line is senior left guard Seth Zehr (6-6, 300). Zehr has started 31 of the last 32 games at guard or center, but he dealt with injury problems in the spring. If he can't go this summer, look for sophomore Tom Schmeling (6-3, 290) to step in.
Junior Bret Culbertson (6-6, 179) has been one of the best assets for McCarney since taking over the team's kicking chores in the fall of 2004. Culbertson made 12-of-16 field-goal attempts last year and all 34 of his extra-point attempts. Culbertson had a long kick of 45 yards and made 3-of-6 from 40-49 yards. "He did a lot of fabulous things for us a sophomore and he was just a walk-on," McCarney said. "He's deservedly was put on scholarship in 2006, so his confidence should be really high. He has made many, many important kicks for us and he has been very instrumental in us winning a number of games the last two years."
The pieces on the offensive side of the ball are clearly in place, but McCarney knows that a lot of work has to be done on defense, where only five starters return. Last season Iowa State was 20th nationally in scoring and pass defense, seventh in turnover margin, 25th in rush defense and 35th in total defense. "When you have 35 takeaways and lead the Big 12, it highlights the great job being done by defensive coordinator John Skladany and the other defensive coaches and players," McCarney said. "Are we looking for excuses because we lost a bunch of guys? No. Do we know that it is going to take some time for us to develop that caliber of defense? Yes. Are we on a fast track to get there? Absolutely. "The players that have moved on have left a great example of how this game should be played and our young players are ready to follow that example." Iowa State has a couple of proven players on the defensive line in senior tackle Brent Curvey (6-0, 305) and pass rushing end Shawn Moorehead (6-3, 250), a junior.
Curvey specializes in producing big plays. He earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last season after making 51 tackles and 6.5 sacks. His 66-yard interception return was the key touchdown in a win over Colorado, and he also returned two fumbles for scores in 2004. He is clearly the leader of the defensive line."There is no question about Brent," McCarney said. "He is a 300-pounder who has athleticism, foot speed and quickness. I clearly expect him to go out and be one of the better defensive ends in the Big 12." Moorehead was a huge surprise last year -- the former walk-on played with aggressiveness and made 34 tackles and added 9.5 more behind the line of scrimmage. He impressed McCarney with his growth and development. "He came here as a skinny walk-on," McCarney said. "But we beefed him up and told him to put his hand on the ground, play defensive end and help us win some games. Boy, has he done just that." The defensive line would be in much better shape if end Jason Berryman was back in the lineup after winning Big 12 defensive newcomer-of-the-year honors last season. But Berryman was dismissed from the team. Junior Kurtis Taylor (6-3, 250) is likely to take Berryman's spot in the starting lineup in the fall, although he will have to hold off the charge of sophomore Nick Friere (6-2, 240) during the summer. "Kurtis Taylor is one of the most improved players on our defense through spring ball," McCarney said. "Friere has got to give us depth." Redshirt freshman Stephen Dale (6-3, 255) is the probable starter at nose guard, with senior Jason McGinty (6-0, 300) behind him on the depth chart.
It will be difficult for this unit to carry on without All-Big 12 middle linebacker Tim Dobbins, who last season led the team with 103 tackles. But the Cyclones are no different than any other team that loses a star or two every year. McCarney was hoping senior Matt Robertson would take Dobbins' spot in the middle after registering 183 tackles in his first three seasons and coming up with 14 tackles in the Houston Bowl loss to TCU. But McCarney booted Robertson off the team after he tested positive for a banned nutritional supplement. Considerable responsibility now falls on the shoulders of sophomore Adam Carper (6-3, 225). Carper has the talent to emerge as a leader of this unit. He won All-Big 12 freshman honors a year ago after starting six times and making 41 tackles. "Carper has all kinds of potential and athleticism and he really started to figure things out the last few games of last year," McCarney said. "I saw it in the bowl game and bowl practices that his level of confidence was really going up. He came in with a quarterback's body and he is starting to look like a Big 12 linebacker." Sophomore Tyrone McKenzie (6-2, 230) should start on the strong side. McKenzie, who started his career at Michigan State, made McCarney and his staff take notice with his play on the scout team a year ago. "I'll be real surprised if someday he's not one of the better linebackers that we've had here at Iowa State," McCarney said. "He's got so much character and talent." Alvin "Ace" Bowen (6-4, 220) should start on the weak side after playing every game a year ago and finishing with 30 tackles. Bowen has great speed, and his length makes it difficult for quarterbacks to throw overhim. McCarney will also depend on Josh Raven (5-11, 205) to help Bowen out on the weak side. He has speed and instincts, but his lack of size is a concern. "He needs to get a Big 12-type body," McCarney said. "He is going to get his opportunities."
The Cyclones have been hit hard by graduation on the defensive side of the ball -- as well as the disciplinary actions against Berryman and Robertson -- but the losses in the secondary have been dramatic. Gone are free safety Steve Paris, strong safety Nik Moser and cornerback LaMarcus Hicks -- all of whom earned Big 12 honors a year ago. That threesome combined for 186 tackles and 12 of Iowa State's 22 interceptions. The Cyclones move forward with one great player returning in senior cornerback DeAndre Jackson (6-0, 192), a big-time hitter and solid cover man. He earned All-Big 12 honors in '05 after making 55 tackles and a league-leading five interceptions. "Jackson is definitely the best defensive back we have on this team," said McCarney. "In my mind, he should be one of the better corners in the Big 12 and all of college football in 2006. This is a tremendous talent, and if you look back at what we did in passes defensed, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, interceptions and tackles, you will see DeAndre's name. He is a playmaker who needs to step up and become a leader." After Jackson, it's basically a battle to see who can get better the fastest. Sophomore cornerback Chris Singleton (5-10, 191) should start opposite Jackson on the right side. He made eight tackles in limited action. He will have to hold off the charge of freshman Steve Johnson (6-2, 197) to earn a starting job. The competition between freshman James Smith (5-8, 191) and junior Caleb Berg (6-1, 203) for the strong safety position should be a good one this summer. While Berg is a special teams star and has seen some action, the battle is dead even because Smith has good speed and is aggressive. McCarney is high on Smith. "Everyone thought he was too short, except me and my defensive coaches," he said. "Watch his career -- it's going to be special." Junior free safety Jon Banks (6-3, 217) will try to hold off a charge from sophomore Brandon Hunley (5-11, 195) this summer. Banks has some experience and the kind of size that will be hard for the coaches to discount when they determine a starter. "Caleb Berg, Jon Banks and Chris Singleton have all been on the field on game day, more on special teams than on defense, but all those guys have at least been on the field," McCarney said. "And then those young guys coming out of redshirt, James Smith and Steve Johnson, have really got some talent. We have to bring them along fast."
Troy Blankenship has moved on and redshirt freshman Michael Brandtner (6-1, 198) is battling junior Scott Krava (6-0, 202) to replace him. Brandtner appeared to have the edge after a strong spring performance. He averaged 45.0 yards per punt in high school, evidence of his leg strength. "Brandtner, based on bowl practices and spring practice, is our starter going in," McCarney said. "Krava can punt, but he has not been very consistent to this point. Brandtner is the guy with the most potential and the strongest leg."
Iowa State's kick returners led the Big 12 in yards per return in 2004 (23.2) and then improved that mark to 24.4 in 2005. DeAndre Jackson averaged 24.6 yards per return (second in the Big 12). Sophomore R.J. Sumrall (6-1, 195) is a speedy hurdler on the Iowa State track team and will also see action as a returner, as will Austin Flynn. Senior punt returner Ryan Baum (5-10, 186) is a special teams leader. He averaged 11.8 yards per punt return before suffering a season-ending knee injury midway through the season. He also mans the role of gunner on the punt coverage team. Sumrall took over punt return duties after Baum's injury and averaged 7.7 yards per return. Both excel at securing the ball.
McCarney knows the offense has to carry his team, at least in the first half of the season, because the defense lost six starters. It might take a while for so many new starters to get into the flow.
The defense has some talented players, but graduation and the dismissal of Robertson and Berryman could make for a tough transition period.But there are no such worries about the offense. Meyer is smart and talented and he's got a lot of weapons to go to in the passing game, provided his line can offer him more protection than it did a year ago. Special teams look good, but may not be great. Add it all up and it appears as though the Cyclones are good enough for another bowl trip.
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