College Football

Iowa State made one of the offseason’s best hires in Matt Campbell

IOWA STATE MADE A GOOD HIRE

. . . and I might be more excited about it than I ought to be. Matt Campbell made hay at Toledo with an interim Military Bowl in 2011, then had the interim tag removed and went 9-4, 7-5, 9-4, and 9-2 (which would have almost certainly been 10-2 had it not been for the cancelled Stony Book game). They beat Arkansas and finished 20th in the F/+ rankings and 37th in Sagarin.

Iowa State 2015For me, games featuring Campbell’s Toledo teams were appointment television: I loved their up-tempo run first offense buoyed by efficient passing. Campbell’s defenses were also stingy, holding two high-powered offenses in Arkansas and Bowling Green to season-low performances. When so many of the mid-majors were earning their living throwing the ball 40+ times, it was fun to see a team come in, physically beat the tar out of them, and win playing a completely different style of ball.

So naturally I love that Campbell is now at Iowa State. For a long time I’ve felt that Iowa State was a bit of a black sheep in the Big 12, being one of the first to adopt Purdue-style spread concepts into their offenses under Dan McCarney in the early aughts when everyone else was just running the ball, and being one of the few holdouts for that style of ball even as the rest of the league sold its soul to the Air Raid. (I see you too, Kansas State.)

Also, Iowa State under Paul Rhoads was known to punch above its weight class, knocking off 2009 Nebraska, 2010 Texas, 2011 Oklahoma State (keeping them out of the national title game), and generally being a thorn in the side to in-state rival Iowa despite big brother having every possible advantage. Even the 2015 Cyclones shut out Texas and took a New Year’s Six Oklahoma State team to the wire. This isn’t Kansas, where the roster is bereft of talent or leadership. While a difficult schedule might make a bowl game a stretch for 2016, there are interesting pieces here that Campbell can use right away.

LANNING VS. THE FIELD

In last year’s Iowa State preview, I wrote that I felt like now-departed quarterback Sam Richardson deserved better, routinely putting up decent numbers and managing games despite constantly playing from behind. He began 2015 in a similar fashion in a win over Northern Iowa and losses to Iowa and Campbell’s Toledo, but threw seven picks in the next four games and was eventually benched in favor of sophomore Joel Lanning.

Lanning enjoyed modest success, particularly in a 12-for-17, three-touchdown performance in relief of Richardson against Baylor but struggled against the likes of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. He rebounded for a stellar performance in defeat against Kansas State before ending with a thud in a two-pick showing against West Virginia.

Campbell likes Lanning’s arm and mobility (6.5 yards per non-sack carry) but he needs to cut down on the sacks (11.1% sack rate) and fumbles (seven, though just two lost), and work on his accuracy. Campbell gave Lanning a vote of confidence after spring ball, but I suspect former Georgia signal caller Jacob Park, a former four star recruit, might have something to say about that, not to mention incoming freshman Zeb Noland who Campbell brought along from Toledo.

At running back, Iowa State has a clear starter in Mike Warren, the 6’0”/200 pounder who burst onto the scene as a freshman and ran for 1,300 yards. Campbell utilized his running backs heavily at Toledo, especially in 2015 when Kareem Hunt, Terry Swanson, and Damion Jones-Moore combined for 404 carries for 2,300 yards. He’ll find Warren a nice fit for his power-spread style . . . hopefully he doesn’t get hurt, because there’s no depth behind him. Joshua Thomas and Tyler Brown transferred after decent seasons leaving Lanning the second-leading rusher. Even a wideout, Trever Ryen, got more touches than the next running back up. Justin Webster at 6’1”/229 pounds looks (on paper, at least) to be a decent counterpunch to Warren but has no prior action.

Out wide, Allen Lazard returns to make cornerbacks’ lives miserable for yet another season. (Somehow, the 6’5”/223-pounder is only a junior.) He’s as explosive an option as you’re likely to find in this system at 9.6 yards per target.

While the Cyclones haven’t utilized a tight end in the passing game much, I expect that to change in Campbell’s power-based offense. Justin Chandler proved an explosive target in extremely limited action in 2015 (does two catches for 49 yards even count as action?) and will likely figure prominently in the new system.

The Cyclones also face a near-total reset on the offensive line. One starter, the veteran Jake Campos, returns, but the rest of the line are complete unknowns. Campbell coached some talented offensive lines at Toledo but I’d be willing to guess stocking the trenches is going to be a high priority.

TRESSELBALL COMES TO THE BIG 12

At Toledo, Campbell and DC Jon Heacock complemented their run-heavy attack with a defense built to stop the same. The Rockets rebounded from a dreadful 2014 to rank 21st in Defensive S&P+ and 8th against the run.

How far the same approach will take them in the pass-first, pass-happy Big 12 remains to be seen, but generally it can’t hurt. Demond Tucker was as disruptive a force at defensive tackle as you’re likely to find, with 13 tackles for loss and six sacks.

Outside of Tucker, you find the middling types of numbers reminiscent of a three-win team. If Heacock, the former Tressel disciple, brings along a similar style to the likes of which he coached at Toledo, you’ll likely see a big-play negating, risk-averse style of ball . . . but there just isn’t much talent here to operate it. Just one linebacker, redshirt freshman Bobby McMillen III, rates higher than two stars, and he’s never played a down. If nothing else Heacock will have a blank slate.

Fortunately, the secondary figures to be a relative strength. None of the front seven even come close to cornerback Brian Peavy’s team-leading 68 tackles and ten pass breakups, and the Cyclones lose only one major contributor. Campbell will supplement this experience with three bigger-bodied JUCOs (to counterpunch some of the Big 12’s bigger-bodied wide receivers, I figure). If they can hold things down in the back, Heacock will have some breathing room to figure things out up front.

ALLEN LAZARD IS A PRETTY GOOD PUNT RETURNER

No touchdowns to show for it in 2015, unfortunately, but 19.5 yards per punt return is a game-changing presence on special teams. Trever Ryen added a stellar 15.4 per and did manage to house one against Northern Iowa.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the defense could force some more stops to let these guys take a few more shots?

Placekicker Cole Netten seemed to get more accurate from further away, hitting six of eight from beyond 40 yards and only eight of eleven from inside that mark. He’s dependable.

Iowa State 2016THIS SCHEDULE IS TOUGH, AND IT’S GONNA STAY TOUGH

Now Campbell gets to find out the hard way why his predecessors got the boot: the Big 12 is a tough league. I wrote in the Kansas preview that once upon a time when the Big 12 had divisions, the bullies would rotate off the schedule and a younger team that might normally never see sun could go snag eight or nine wins. No one knows that better than Iowa State, who went 9-3 and 7-5 when Oklahoma and Texas rotated off in 2000 and 2001.

Campbell doesn’t get that luxury. Texas is down but improving. Baylor might be susceptible for a little while, but TCU, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State are still kings, and Iowa State gets to play them every year until the Big 12 inevitably expands.

I don’t anticipate the Cyclones make a bowl this year. But give Campbell time to stock the cupboard and I bet frequent bowling is in Iowa State’s future.

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