Gene Chizik knew this wasn't going to be easy. Comeuppance was agonizing in the early going during his first season at Iowa State until the downtrodden Cyclones showed improvement in their final five contests of 2007. Now Chizik enters his second season without a trio of program icons, must break-in a new starting quarterback and battle to ascend from the North cellar. The only certainty in Ames is that Chizik won't get much sleep again this fall.
Briefly: Cyclones prep for more heavy lifting
Say this for Chizik: He's not afraid to answer the tough questions with brutal honesty.
How did offseason conditioning go after his initial season at the Cyclones' helm?
Quick story: When Chizik arrived at Iowa State, he said only two players power cleaned more than 300 pounds. Entering the spring, the Cyclones had 21 players who could reach the mark. Similarly, they only had one player who could squat 500. Now they have 13.
"We have to make more (strides)," he said, "because we still aren't strong enough."
So who did a really good job stepping up in the spring for the Cyclones?
"Nobody really stuck out," he replied. "We have solid guys. We don't have guys that make you go 'Wow.' We just don't have a lot of big-time names or big-time players."
Actually, Chizik said the Cyclones didn't need a star to be able to win games. His first season didn't work out too well when he did have stars en two in school record-setting quarterback Bret Meyer, wide receiver Todd Blythe and Alvin "Ace" Bowen, who led the nation in tackles in 2006. For as crucial as their contributions, though, only Bowen earned any hardware as a senior with second-team All-Big 12 honors.
After Chizik became the only first-year coach at Iowa State in 100 years to beat rival Iowa in his first try, he had to wait six games to notch his second victory – a 31-20 win against Kansas State that the Cyclones followed up with a 31-28 win against Colorado.
"There are many growing pains," said Chizik, who went winless on the road. "I still feel that athletically we are still a little bit off. If you have a lot of solid recruiting classes, you will eventually crawl your way back to competing with some of the upper-echelon teams. We are on track."
That's fine, but a crowd of 8,000 left Jack Trice Stadium after the spring game wondering exactly what would transpire this fall. Although incumbent Austen Arnaud entered as the No. 1 quarterback, he completed just 7 of 21 passes for 98 yards with 1 TD and 3 INTs, opening the door for converted wide receiver Phillip Bates. As Chizik put it, "Offensively, we were not very good at all."
The good news? The Cyclones have 29 practices in training camp before opening at home against South Dakota State. But from there, who knows?
"Overall, we will go back and look at the film (from the spring)," Chizik said. "Sometimes things aren't as good as they seem and sometimes they're not as bad as they seem."
Unfortunately, there could be more bad than good again in 2008.
While the Cyclones look to improve, the five teams that finished ahead of them in the North standings aren't expected to drop off.
Offense: Diplomatic Chizik contends Arnaud is the better passer and Bates is the better runner. While the pair of sophomores will battle into the fall, the 6-foot-2, 209-pound Bates clearly made more significant strides than Arnaud, who saw action in several contests a year ago and completed 20 of 37 passes for 267 yards and 1 INT. Among his feats, Bates tossed a 99-yard TD pass off of a play-action fake and in one scrimmage and ran 60 yards for a score on a misdirection in another.
Bates, the one-time wide receiver, knows where pass-catchers want and don't want the ball and in the spring game he showed an ability to make tough throws. In the fall, he'll be a threat to gain large chunks on designed runs or on broken plays.
It will be crucial for someone to steer the offense, which averaged a next-to-last 18.2 points in the league and a league-worst 326.9 total yards, in a positive direction.
"As the spring went on you could really see (Bates) grow as a quarterback," Chizik said. "He didn't turn the ball over and he moved the team. He's got enough athletic ability that when he gets himself into trouble he can get himself out. In this league that's huge. Austen has experience so we expected him to be a little further along, which he was. Phillip has close the game on that a good bit."
Chizik concludes, "It's not out of the realm for us to play two quarterbacks. It's a good mix and there's a chance for both of them to be on the field at the same time."
Marquis Hamilton (nine starts) and R.J. Sumrall (six) both started in at least half of the games last season. While Sumrall returns a team-high 54 receptions, Hamilton averaged 11.9 yards on 45 catches. Both must be counted on to become scoring threats. Hamilton had 1 TD; Sumrall had none for an offense that produced just nine scores through the air. Seniors Wallace Franklin and Euseph Messiah return few catches but capitalized off of Blythe's absence in delivering impressive performances in the spring. The surprise here is redshirt junior Houston Jones, who grabbed and maintained coaches' attention and should see significant playing time. There could be more surprises to come in the fall with the addition of 6-foot-4, 200-pound freshman Sedrick Johnson and transfer Jason Carlson.
Junior Derrick Catlett is a smooth-running tight end that got past defenders for 21 receptions and 2 TDs last season.
"We have a team of role players but as far as big-play capability and a guy who can score four touchdowns in a game, we don't have that guy," Chizik said. "We're going to have some guys challenge when they come in here as freshmen just because we're really thin at that position and we don't have that star power."
The Cyclones had three players each log 100-yard performances on the ground in games last season for the first time since 1982. At the moment, they return two of those running backs. Sophomore Alexander Robinson is primed to become a backfield star after returning a team-leading 465 yards and 6 TDs and senior Jason Scales gets a final crack at making a lasting impact. Both started four games in 2007. Another senior, J.J. Bass, has been suspended indefinitely. Chizik said it didn't involve a legal incident, adding, "There is a chance that he will return if he meets the standard that we have set."
Bo Williams, a transfer from Florida that sat out last season, spent the spring adapting to the Cyclones' style, but Chizik said the fleet-footed back who can reverse field has "really showed some good flashes."
There's not much concern at this spot behind a healthy Robinson but there's no doubt the Cyclones must improve their rushing production.
"Alexander Robinson has definitely stepped up to the front of the pack in terms of his progression and being a more polished back," Chizik said. "We have to have a much better rushing attack then we did last year. Our tailback situation is pretty good. I don't think it's one of the weaker parts of our team but that's going to come down to our offensive line gelling as well."
Therein lies the rub. Although four starters return along the line, Chizik hinted that personnel and positions could flip-flop in the fall as he left the spring displeased at its sluggish showing in the spring game. "There will be some changes to our offensive line that weren't necessarily there last year," he said.
Ben Lamaak moves from tackle to guard, lost 15 pounds to become more athletic and in the spring was the quickest on the line to earn a starting spot. Senior left tackle Doug Dedrick, junior left guard Reggie Stephens and senior center Brandon Johnson also each started in all 12 games a year ago, but that means little. Matt Hulbert left as the favorite at left tackle, redshirt freshman Kelechi Osemele was solid at right tackle and junior Mike Knapp, a walk-on, could supplant Johnson at center. Then again, this precarious line could change a few more times during training camp.
RETURNING LEADERS – PASSING: Austen Arnaud (20-37, 267 yds, 0 TD, 1 INT), RUSHING: RB Alexander Robinson (118 att, 465 yds, 6 TD), RECEIVING: WR R.J. Sumrall (54 rec, 434 yds, 0 TD)
Defense: The unit that went from 102nd nationally and 11th in the Big 12 in total defense in 2006 to 65th nationally and seventh in the league last season still must improve in creating more turnovers, increasing its sack total and in stiffening inside the red zone to give the Cyclones a chance.
After the spring, Chizik told his players, "A year ago, you were just learning the system as fast as you could. Now we want you to be able to see why our schemes are set in a certain way. We want you to articulate they good or bad things happen on the field."
The defensive secondary entered the spring looking to improve after allowing 254.2 passing yards per contest, which ranked fifth in the Big 12, but still 91st nationally. The forecast looked promising with all four starters in cornerbacks Chris Singleton and Allen Bell to go along with free safety James Smith, who returns 79 tackles, and strong safety Chris Brown, who returns a team-leading 4 PBUs. But Brown's knee injury casts doubt for the fall while Singleton, whose 4 INTs led the team a year ago, missed the spring game with an unspecified injury but should be ready for training camp. Among the others competing for playing time, sophomore cornerback Devin McDowell proved himself to be a hard-hitter who can cause fumbles in spring workouts.
No doubt, the interior line faced a daunting task in the spring in trying to corral athletic Bates in the pocket, but it was a good primer for a group that needs to improve upon its 20 sacks last season, which tied for ninth in the league. The ends – junior Rashawn Parker and senior Kurtis Taylor – return 8.5 of those sacks after starting in every game. While Parker, who returns a team-high six QB hurries, missed the spring with a wrist injury, Christopher Lyle stepped in with one sack and two tackles for a loss in the spring game, exploits that didn't go unnoticed by his head coach.
"(Lyle) had a good spring," Chizik said. "I saw him show up on some pass rushes."
Junior nose tackle Nate Frere and defensive tackle Bailey Johnson don't have any starts but they do bring experience up front and Frere, described by Chizik as a leader, could play both inside spots. But Michael Tate a 6-foot-4, 295-pound redshirt junior who ended the season with an injury, emerged as a surprise in the spring and will be in the mix with senior Chris Weir and redshirt freshman Jerrod Black for some action as the bunch looks to improve against the run.
The linebacking corps will have a new look without menacing Bowen gobbling up quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield. Junior middle linebacker Jesse Smith brings back 79 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss as a fulltime starter but the other two positions return no starts. Still, senior strongside linebacker Michael Bibbs and weakside backer Fred Garrin provide experience. Both recorded 19 tackles in 10 games.
RETURNING LEADERS – FS James Smith (79 tackles, 2 INT, 2 FF, 2 FR), MLB Jesse Smith (79 tackles, 3.5 loss, 1.0 sacks, 2 FF), CB Allen Bell (54 tackles, 1 INT)
Kicking game: The departure of four-year starter Bret Culbertson leaves a huge hole at placekicker. Sophomore Daniel Kuehl and redshirt freshman Michael Romey were on roster in the spring but incoming freshman and Iowa native Grant Mahoney will get a chance to prove himself in the fall. Mahoney went just 5 for 11 in his senior season. Junior Mike Brandtner will look to improve upon his 39.4-yard average on 69 punts, which ranked eighth in the league. Sumrall, Allen Bell and Zac Sandvig return the most experience at kickoff and punt returns.
From his lips:
"I've seen a lot of things improve, but we have a long way to go in so many different ways." — Iowa State coach Gene Chizik
3.2 — Average yards per punt return in 2007, which ranked dead last in the nation.
Rivals.com '08 Best Catch: WR Sedrick Johnson Here's the deal. Johnson wasn't supposed to be a Cyclone. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder and No. 34-rated wide receiver among seniors by Rivals.com had 41 catches for 633 yards and 12 TDs at Arp (Texas) High School. He had a 4.5 40 and a 40-inch vertical leap. So he had the tools. He also had been a commitment to Texas A&M. "I'm still an Aggie and I'm still gonna be an Aggie," Johnson told AggieYell.com after Mike Sherman replaced Dennis Franchione as head coach in late November. Then, boom. Johnson pulled one of the nation's biggest surprises on signing day when he switched from his commitment to Texas A&M at the last minute after a late push by the Cyclones coaching staff. "I can tell you this, he told me (the day before signing) that he was 50-50," Arp head coach Brian Irwin said. "Then he came in the morning (of signing day) and dropped a bomb on us." Absent of stars at wide receiver, Johnson, the Cyclones' only four-star signee, is considered a strong candidate to see the field quickly and catch some bombs against Big 12 opponents in the fall.