EDITOR’S NOTE: In the two weeks leading up to the 2017 college football season, The Franchise columnist and co-host John E. Hoover previews the Big 12 Conference. Today: Iowa State.
Iowa State saw real progress in Matt Campbell’s first season at the helm.
That progress resulted in a 3-9 overall record and a 2-7 mark in Big 12 Conference play, so yeah, that progress was muted. But it was progress nonetheless.
“You saw our football team, I think,” Campbell said, “get better as last football season went on.”
There was a three-point loss to Baylor. Then a seven-point loss to runner-up Oklahoma State. Then a five-point loss to a good Kansas State team. Finally, a 10-point loss to eventual champ and league unbeaten Oklahoma. That’s four losses to four bowl teams by an aggregate 25 points.
That’s when things got interesting. The Cyclones finished the season with a seven-point win over last-place Kansas, followed by a potentially program-changing 66-10 home blowout of flailing Texas Tech, the most points scored and largest margin of victory in a conference game for Iowa State.
Now that’s progress.
Improved depth throughout the roster is a good reason for optimism in 2017. Campbell said it was routine to fear an injury every day in practice last season. Now, he said, coaches are not afraid to unleash competition, and that competition has made everyone better.
Start at quarterback, where Joel Lanning didn’t start but rushed for five touchdowns in that blowout victory over Tech — and has moved to middle linebacker.
“I wasn’t offended by it,” Lanning said of the move. “I’m a team player. I don’t need all the, whatever, followers on Twitter and all that stuff. I was just trying to play football and have fun playing with my teammates, win games.
“My main thing is linebacker. All the other stuff is fantasy right now.”
Lanning became the quarterback of the defense during the spring and took to it immediately.
“That’s never an easy transition, you know, going from the quarterback to now going onto the defensive side of the football,” Campbell said. “But Joel has kind of been a beacon of excellence within our program really from the day that I’ve gotten to Iowa State. You talk about laying a foundation of attitude and effort, Joel was that and has been that.
“I think we got to the end of the football season, and we saw one of our best football players not playing consistently for our football team, and it’s my job to find an answer because that’s not good enough.”
Lanning, a local schoolboy from nearby Ankeny, Iowa, hasn’t played linebacker since eighth grade. But he’s been good so far, embracing the mindset that takes him from avoiding hits to seeking them out.
“I was a physical runner, but, like, every single play I wasn’t getting hit, and now I’m getting hit every single play regardless if I like it or not,” Lanning said. “Right now, I feel good because it’s the summer.”
“I probably was taken aback a little bit about just as much growth as he was able to make from practice 1 through 15 (during spring),” Campbell said. “… But Joel always played with a linebacker’s mentality at quarterback. But transitioning to now tackling and playing in space and doing those things, I think that’s been probably his biggest transition, but it’s been really fun to watch. I thought by practice 13, 14, 15 (of spring), boy, he looked like he belonged for sure.”
At the other quarterback position — the one on offense — consistency from Jacob Park enabled Lanning’s switch.
Park, a transfer from Georgia who also had offers from Alabama, Auburn, Notre Dame, Florida State and Tennessee, alternated with Lanning before taking over as the main QB for the final five games. He completed 59 percent of his passes for 1,789 yards with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions and settled the offense.
Park has the luxury of senior wideout Allen Lazard, who eschewed the NFL Draft for one final shot to turn the Cyclones around. Last year he caught 69 passes for 1,018 yards and seven touchdowns and could one day be regarded as the best wideout in school history.
“It was really important for us to get a guy like that back,” Campbell said, “because not only is he a great receiver, but he’s a guy that is huge in that locker room and came to Iowa State not just to play the game of football, but came to leave a legacy.”
Trevor Ryan and Deshaunte Jones each caught 37 passes last year for a combined 914 yards and eight TDs. Carson Epps, a junior from Jenks, has 25 career receptions and hopes to have a big year.
Running back Mike Warren — another Oklahoma product, a junior from Lawton — had a breakout freshman season (1,339 yards, third-best ever by a Big 12 freshman, and a 5.9-yards-per-carry average) but endured injuries and a sophomore slump last year (559 yards, 4.2 per carry) and lost his starting job to David Montgomery (563 yards, 5.2 per carry). Expect a bounceback season from Warren in his second year in Campbell’s offense.
While offensive scheme under Campbell should continue to evolve nicely (the former Mount Union defensive lineman coordinated and coached a record-setting offense at Toledo), Iowa State’s defense should expect to build on last season’s moderate success.
ISU ranked eighth in the Big 12 in total defense (452.9 yards per game), seventh in scoring defense (31.3 points per game) and eighth in rushing defense (218.2 yards per game), the Cyclones also ranked third in passing defense (234.8 yards per game).
Senior free safety Kamari Cotton-Moya, third on the team and 12th in the Big 12 with 73 tackles last year, is one of the league’s best defensive backs on a defense that returns nine starters — and no, Lanning doesn’t count even though he has 14 career starts at QB.
Maybe it’s Lanning and his willingness to sacrifice and put aside ego and devote himself to the team that ultimately helps set the example to empower the Iowa State defense.
“As I thought more of it,” Campbell said, “I almost kind of put myself in a GM mentality of ‘Where do I see this guy? Does he have the ability — a phenomenal athlete, maybe one of the best athletes in college football, for a big, skill football player — where does this guy really fit and where can he help our football program?’
“So he’s taken this leadership role and really excelled on the defensive side.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.
- 2017 IOWA STATE SCHEDULE
- Sept. 2: Northern Iowa
- Sept. 9: Iowa
- Sept. 16: at Akron
- Sept. 28: Texas
- Oct. 7: at Oklahoma
- Oct. 14: Kansas
- Oct. 21: at Texas Tech
- Oct. 28: TCU
- Nov. 4: at West Virginia
- Nov. 11: Oklahoma State
- Nov. 18: at Baylor
- Nov. 25: at Kansas State