Iowa State is coming off its worst season under coach Paul Rhoads. If the Cyclones are to rebound from a three-win season, new offensive coordinator Mark Mangino will likely be in the middle of it.
After an off-season that saw a massive overhaul of the coaching staff, with six new coaches coming on board, it's Mangino and the offense that is in the best position for success in 2014.
"I am excited about the energy that our kids and coaching staff have together," Rhoads said. "We have changed some things up in training camp ... I am very pleased with where we are at."
Mangino gained fame while calling plays for the Oklahoma national championship team in 2000 and for reviving Kansas as a head coach in the 2000s. He inherits an offensive line that returns all five starters and the largest group of impact skill position playmakers in the Rhoads era, including tight end E.J. Bibbs, wide receiver Quenton Bundrage and running back Aaron Wimberly.
ISU is still unsettled at quarterback with Grant Rohach and Sam Richardson, who split time last season, competing in camp to start. Regardless of who takes the first snap, ISU will need better production. The two combined for 2,605 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season.
It's on Mangino to get the offense to score more than the 24.8 points from last season. It's on defensive coordinator Wally Burnham to revive a defense that allowed a Big 12 worst 36.0 points per game. He returns defensive end Cory Morrissey and cornerback Nigel Tribune, but the defense is young and inexperienced. The Cyclone will need their five junior college defensive transfers, led by defensive ends Trent Taylor and Gabe Luna, to make an immediate impact.
The Cyclones don't ease into the season. They open with three-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State before facing Kansas State, Iowa and Baylor, who combined to go 27-12 last season, in their next three games. It will likely fall on the offense to outscore opponents in August and September as the new-look defense will likely need time to jell.
"Having Kansas State, the Big 12 opponent, the second game, it draws your attention," Rhoads said. "So we are looking at a returning national champion, which grabs you by the face mask. We are looking at a Big 12 team, which we have not beat in five weeks year two and we have our in-state rival week three. There isn't going to be any problem having our kids focused in preparation as we go into that first part of the season."
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: When Iowa State goes to a bowl game under coach Paul Rhoads it starts off fast. It's no guarantee the Cyclones win the season opener against North Dakota State, the three-time defending FCS champions. A young and inexperienced defense will be tested against Kansas State on Sept. 6 as Wildcat quarterback Jake Waters will consistently look to big-play wide receiver Tyler Lockett. ISU travels to Iowa on Sept. 13 and the last three games against Iowa were decided by 12 total points. ISU lost to Baylor 71-7 last season. The Bears travel to Ames on Sept. 27. The Cyclones will need to win at least two, if not three of these games to make a serious push at a bowl game.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: ISU hasn't be an offensive powerhouse under coach Paul Rhoads, failing to average more than 25 points in a season. That must change this year with NFL-caliber talent at tight end (senior E.J. Bibbs) and potentially at wide receiver (junior Quenton Bundrage, freshman Allen Lazard). A slew of playmakers won't matter for the Cyclones if the line doesn't improve (ISU was last in the Big 12 in sacks allowed last season) and the quarterbacks don't protect the football better. The pieces are there for this to be the most successful ISU offense in the Rhoads era.
AREAS OF CONCERN: There is only one upperclassman, returning senior starter Brandon Jensen, at defensive tackle. That's not good news for an ISU team that finished last in the Big 12 in rush defense. ISU needs sophomore Devlyn Cousin to play beyond his years inside. The Cyclones are also breaking in two new safeties with junior college transfer Qujuan Floyd, sophomore T.J. Mutcherson and redshirt freshman Kamari Cotton-Moya in the mix to start. Beyond returning starter Cory Morrissey there is no established defensive end. The Cyclones prefer to rotate four to six players on the edge. They'll need multiple players to step up (sophomore Mitchell Meyers and junior college transfers Gabe Luna, Trent Taylor and Dale Pierson will likely see snaps) to not only fill the rotation, but improve on last year's 15 sack total.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Postseason victory, we haven't achieved it since 2009. It's an expectation I place on our program on a yearly basis and you don't back off that. We want to not only get into the postseason, but we want to win in the postseason and I don't think there are a lot of people in this room that think that's possible." -- Coach Paul Rhoads, on his expectations for the season
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Paul Rhoads, sixth year at Iowa State, 27-36 record at Iowa State and as a head coach.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
TE E.J. Bibbs (No. 6 tight end, 135th overall) -- The 6-foot-3, 261-pound senior is the kind of playmaking tight end NFL teams covet. He had 462 receiving yards and two touchdowns last season. Those numbers are expected to rise this fall.
DE Cory Morrissey (No. 37 defensive end, 448th overall) -- He earned honorable mention Big 12 accolades last year. He is on the NFL radar as 2014 starts, but he'll likely need to produce more than two sacks like last year if he's to hear his name called in the NFL draft this spring.
C Tom Farniok (No. 18 center, 557th overall) -- The senior is another potential late round draft pick that will need a big senior season to get drafted. Farniok is the most experienced Cyclone with 35 career starts.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: C Tom Farniok -- The offensive line fell apart when Farniok missed two games last year with a knee injury. The offense struggled moving the ball without him. There is plenty of potential at running back and receiver for the Cyclones. The line needs to open holes and provide time for passes to be completed for the offense to take a step forward. With no experienced backup center ISU needs Farniok leading the Cyclones in the trenches.
BREAKOUT STAR: RB Aaron Wimberly -- He showed flashes last season when he rushed for 100-plus yards against Tulsa and Texas, but injuries slowed him last season. The 5-foot-9, 177-pound Wimberly isn't built to carry the ball 25 times a game, but is an explosive playmaker. Coaches talk about him topping the 1,000-yard mark. If he stays healthy he could be one of the leading Big 12 rushers.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Allen Lazard -- The local product from Urbandale Iowa was a high school All-American and the most high profile recruit Rhoads has landed. He comes in built to play from day one with a 6-foot-5, 221-pound frame. He had 2,349 receiving yards and 34 touchdowns in his high school career.
--Backup C Ben Loth will miss the season after suffering a torn MCL in the first practice of the season.
--DT Terry Ayeni, a junior college transfer, suffered a torn ACL before arriving in town and will miss the season.
--DE's Dale Pierson and Trent Taylor, who are both junior college transfers, could see time at defensive tackle in pass rush situations as the Cyclones try to increase their sack total. ISU had 15 sacks last season.
--Backup redshirt freshman WR Bryan Ajumobi has left the program.
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