AMES, Iowa -- This is a year of transition at Iowa State with stalwarts that led the team to three bowl games in four seasons like all-conference linebackers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott, wide receiver Josh Lenz and defensive tackle Jake McDonough trying to make it in the NFL.
The Cyclones return only 11 starters, one of the lowest numbers in the Big 12, and will once again have to navigate one of the toughest schedules in the nation to make another bowl game. There isn't much expected of ISU outside of campus. The Cyclones were picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 preseason poll. But the coaches are quietly confident, believing there are better athletes on the 2013 roster than past teams.
"I would rather start with athleticism and speed and then try to bring along that inexperience as we go rather than slow and plot our way there because it won't happen in this league," coach Paul Rhoads said.
What Rhoads would love to see is more production from the offense. It has yet to average more than 24 points a season during his tenure.
Quarterback Sam Richardson took control of the team late last season and will be asked to do more in the passing game than complete the 58 percent of passes he had a year ago. Richardson, who played the final three games of last season, will likely be asked to carry the load in the passing game, especially early, as the Cyclones lost all three starting wideouts from last season.
Although he has done well in workouts, Richardson was less than spectacular in last Saturday's scrimmage.
"Sam has had a really, really good camp, but I'm not going to evaluate yet until I watch the tape whether or not he played well or just played OK," offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said after the scrimmage.
The core of the offense this year will be the running game, which returns a stable of running backs, led by seniors James White and Shontrelle Johnson. Junior college transfer Aaron Wimberly is another potential playmaker in the backfield. Rhoads wants to rely on his backs, and an offensive line that returns three starters, to move the ball into the end zone.
The defense likely won't hold teams to the 23.9 points a game it did last year, which was third in the conference. ISU returns only five starters, but linebacker Jeremiah George, cornerback Jansen Watson and safeties Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield form a nice foundation. Finding capable players on the front seven, as only two starters return, and developing depth are big keys for the Cyclones in fall camp.
ISU made bowl games the last two seasons by winning all of its non-conference games. ISU will be young and inexperienced, but will need to likely win at least two of the three (Northern Iowa, Iowa and at Tulsa) to have a shot at another bowl trip.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: For the third time in 13 months, ISU will face Tulsa when the teams meet on Sept. 26. ISU won the season opener last season 38-23, but lost 31-17 in the Liberty Bowl. The game is on a Thursday and the Cyclones have 12 days off before it. ISU opens at home against Northern Iowa, a team the Cyclones needed a fourth-quarter rally to beat 20-19 in 2011.
The early season schedule is quirky for ISU, with two bye week in the first five weeks. The first one comes before facing in-state rival Iowa on Sept. 10. The Cyclones have won two straight in the series and will likely be favored for the first time in at least a decade against the Hawkeyes. Then comes the road tilt at Tulsa. The Cyclones will play nine conference games and will need to win at least two, maybe even three, of the non-conference September games to have a shot at the postseason.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: ISU needs its young, inexperienced team to quickly adjust to life in the Big 12. ISU has a stable quarterback situation for the first time in two years and Richardson will be asked to cut down his mistakes and take the passes that is given to him while moving the chains and scoring more than the 24 points ISU averaged a year ago. The running game must produce the big plays the coaching staff expected it to last year. The defense must find several players to step up on the front seven and must limit how far back it regresses in what will be a rebuilding year.
AREAS OF CONCERN: ISU doesn't return a single starting wide receiver. Coaches want more big plays from the group, but the receivers must first show they are capable of playing at a Big 12 level. The defensive front seven returns only two starters. The Cyclones need someone to step up on the defensive line or Big 12 opponents could easily control the line of scrimmage. Jeremiah George is the only established linebacker. The Cyclones run a defense that requires its linebackers to make a lot of big plays. If no one steps up alongside George it could be a long season for the defense. Depth is a big concern on defense with coaches uncertain about how well its second-string defense can play. If depth doesn't develop in camp injuries to a starter could be catastrophic.
--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.