‘Bell-Cows’: Cyclones see rise of new leaders

Iowa State redshirt senior defensive back Anthony Johnson talks to reporters after the Cyclones’ spring practice April 15 at Gilbert High School.

Matt Belinson

If you look through Iowa State football’s roster, there are notable faces missing from the picture.

You won’t find Brock Purdy, Breece Hall, Charlie Kolar, Mike Rose, Jake Hummel, Greg Eisworth, Eyioma Uwazurike and countless other program-changers that helped shape the Cyclone program into what it’s become. They’re gone.

While spring football served as a time to observe future difference-makers and young additions to the roster, where do the Cyclones see this apparent void being filled?

Where will Matt Campbell and his team turn this season for guidance and leadership in a locker room made up of 64 underclassmen (redshirt sophomore or younger) and 41 upperclassmen?

There’s no need to look far. They’ve been here. And now it’s their turn to step into the spotlight. And it starts with Xavier Hutchinson, O’Rien Vance, Trevor Downing and Anthony Johnson.

“When we live in razor-thin margins, you have to always consistently go back and evaluate what’s our edge? And our edge has always been our culture. Our edge has been the ability to persevere and lead,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said March 7 to open spring ball.

The Cyclones will walk into Jack Trice Stadium on Sept. 3 with a quarterback that has no starting experience in his career. With the major losses like Kolar, Hall and Purdy, stability is needed.

Enter Hutchinson and Downing.

“We’re fortunate to have guys like Will McDonald, O’Rien Vance, Anthony Johnson who have been elite starters here for a long time,” Campbell said March 15.

Hutchinson, a two-time First Team All-Big 12 receiver, has led the Big 12 in receptions in back-to-back seasons and will be Iowa State’s No. 1 target entering the year.

And he understands what’s expected of him from a leadership role this season.

“Last year, we had Brock, we had Greg, we had Mike Rose. I kind of took the back-seat to leadership. I kind of just try to lead by actions. Those guys spoke about how to work, how to do everything,” Hutchinson said.

“Now I’m in the position where I have to speak more. I have to be the guy who’s also talking the talk and walking the walk. It’s been great for me, honestly.”

Hutchinson has put up 1758 yards and nine touchdowns in his two seasons in Ames.

When it comes to Downing’s uptick in leadership, he not only shifts into a more vocal voice for teammates, but also in his spot on the offensive line.

But adjustment isn’t new to Downing. He started 12 games at left guard in 2019, faced a season-ending injury early in 2020 and moved to right guard in 2021. 

Now, he’s seen as the first choice at center.

And that’s where Campbell praised the two the most as spring ball began, appreciating them for taking on another responsibility when they already play vital roles in the offense. But it’s an important one.

“Those are hard positions to play, and those are bell-cow type human beings,” Campbell said March 7.

The amount of loss is clear on offense, but leadership was lost after the 2021 season on defense as well. Stalwarts like Rose, Eisworth, Hummel, Uwazurike and Zach Petersen won’t be part of the picture in 2022.

But Anthony Johnson and O’Rien Vance aren’t scared of leading their side of the ball. They embrace it and have been looking forward to stepping into the forefront.

“My role has increased a bit. I’m now kind of in the main spotlight I wanna say as a leader,” Johnson said March 15. “I’ve always led people and always helped them get better and push them to their greatest potential.”

Johnson, like Downing, is switching positions on top of emerging as a leader. He was a three-time Honorable Mention All-Big 12 corner, but now is planning to play safety in 2022.

And he’s ready to lead a safety room that features Beau Freyler and Craig McDonald alongside him. The two have a combined four starts at the position.

But he sees leadership as a natural ability for him, and he’s ready to build up the program once again.

“I feel like I’ve been put on this Earth to help others,” Johnson said. “That’s my passion.”