His first recruiting class is not yet complete. Same goes for his coaching staff — going off what’s been made public anyway.
And will players recruited and reared by former coach Gene Chizik stick around or jump ship?
Why should minor details like those prevent me from projecting what Paul Rhoads’ first Iowa State football team will look like?
The offense will be totally new. Assume the defense will be, too (thank goodness for that).
Youth was all over the field last season, which is a good thing if a majority of those players stay in Ames. They’ll get better with age, you’d hope anyway.
Call me crazy, but with the schedule the Cyclones have, a new, wide open offense, and a determination to prove themselves, this could be a team that gets to 6 or 7 wins and plays in its first bowl game since the ’05 Houston Bowl.
OFFENSE — Quarterback Austen Arnaud isn’t going anywhere and should be the starter for the second straight year unless redshirt freshman Jerome Tiller plays beyond his years and proves he deserves it. At running back, Alexander Robinson returns for his junior year. Also in the mix, we think, are redshirt freshman Jeremiah Schwartz and University of Florida transfer Bo Williams. Are they a fit for ISU’s new spread offense and do they want to be here without Chizik and the coaches who brought them in? We shall see.
The Cyclones look like they are set at receiver and tight end, again assuming attrition is not a factor. Back are leading pass-catchers Darius Darks, Sedrick Johnson, Marquis Hamilton and Houston Jones along with tight ends Derrick Catlett and Collin Franklin. Other lesser-knowns could become a part of new offensive coordinator Tom Herman’s offense. Check back in the spring. The offensive line returns all but one starter. How the incumbents fit in with the change in offensive philosophy is hard to say. That figures to be a area where spots are wide open.
DEFENSE — There are losses up front with defensive end Kurtis Taylor and tackle Michael Tate. Nose guard Nate Frere is back to anchor the middle and Rashawn Parker also returns, but the defensive line as a whole needs serious work to rise to Big 12 levels. Youngsters Jake McDonough, Jerrod Black and Stephen Ruempolhamer will be key figures in its resurgence.
Jesse Smith has been ISU’s rock in the middle the last two seasons. The former walk-on is one of the team’s emotional leaders and will be a central figure for Rhoads’ defense. Keep an eye on Ernest Ferguson, who earned playing time at linebacker last year as a true freshman and was a good special teams player. Most critical defensively is an improved secondary. The Cyclones were torched in the passing game the last two seasons and were pitiful a year ago in allowing opponents to complete 67.4 percent of their passes for 276.7 yards a game. Talent is there, but inexperience was not except for dynamic freshman cornerback Leonard Johnson. Rhoads’ specialty is in the defensive backfield, which should help position coach Chris Ash whip this group into shape. Will experience (Allen Bell, James Smith, Devin McDowell) trump youth and promise (Ter’ran Benton, A.J. Matthews, Dustin Land)?
SPECIAL TEAMS — Punter Mike Brandtner has been as solid as it gets during his career. He’ll be a senior. Place kicker Grant Mahoney had a fine year as a freshman, as did Johnson on kick returns, averaging 26.4 yards per attempt and setting a new NCAA Bowl Subdivision record with 319 yards against Oklahoma State. Returning punts has been an annual problem, it seems, and there should be open tryouts for that spot.
Signing day is Feb. 4 and spring practice won’t be too long after that. Can’t wait to see what this bunch looks like as its goes through yet another transition.