Rohlfing: Summer of optimism awaits for Iowa State football

Linebacker, Mike Rose (left), and Defensive back, D’Andre Payne (right) tackle a member of the University of Iowa football team during the game against University of Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 8. The Cyclones were defeated 13-3.

Noah Rohlfing

The summer months are finally upon us. Time for internships and summer jobs, late nights in the setting sun and the Iowa State football hype machine. 

If the last part is confusing to you, trust me, you’re not the only one. 

The Cyclones, coming off of two consecutive 8-5 seasons, are for the first time in ages projected to be a top-25 team when preseason polls come out in late July-early August. The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel placed Iowa State at No. 14 in his personal post-spring practice rankings. CBS Sports put the Cyclones at No. 18, right behind Nebraska and seven spots ahead of No. 25 Iowa. 

So how is this happening, and what does it mean? 

The simple answer is this: Matt Campbell has turned Iowa State into a lot more than the Big 12’s regular-season punching bag.

But why is Iowa State set to be a top-25 team, when there are plenty of other known quantities in the Power-5 conferences? If you look closer, it’s not hard to see.

The Cyclones are ranked 43rd in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projections for SB Nation, the first time the school has started a season in the top 50. The system ranked Iowa State’s 2018 squad 45th following its Alamo Bowl loss to Washington State, showing that the Cyclones have new expectations not just in the Iowa media, but nationwide. 

The Cyclones return a lot of defensive production from what was the Big 12’s second-best defense in 2018, having to replace secondary starters D’Andre Payne and Brian Peavy and linebacker Willie Harvey. But if foundation is the word of the day with regards to Campbell’s team-building, then the defense of Jon Heacock is at a whole other level. 

Iowa State has finished in the top-50 in total defense for two years running after a disastrous 2016 season, when Heacock was trying to figure out what the Cyclones’ best combination of players and system was. Since then, the team has rebounded in resounding fashion, to the point where if Iowa State wants to be a conference contender, the defense will be its calling card. 

The 2019 defense will benefit from a year of experience for starting middle linebacker Mike Rose, who was headed for a MAC scholarship before getting noticed by Campbell and co. In his true freshman season, Rose started all 13 games and will step into a leadership role with the linebacking core for his sophomore season. 

Heacock said Rose’s leadership is necessary for improvement.

“Defense is always knowing where your help is,” Heacock said. “Last year, I think Mike took care of Mike.

“Knowing what everybody else around you is doing, I think that shows you that a guy is maturing.”

The offense has its own Mike Rose in quarterback Brock Purdy. The one-time third string quarterback who wasn’t expecting to play all season is now the best returning player the Cyclones have on his side of the ball. I do worry that the Cyclones’ offense will be unreliable, but Purdy won’t be the issue. 

The offensive line and Butler/Montgomery replacements are what will tell me the most about Iowa State, and I believe these two things will decide whether Iowa State lives up to the hype it has earned.

We’ve written plenty of stories on who is going to make up for Butler’s lost productionit won’t be a one-man job — but Iowa State will have to adjust its offense to match the receivers now on the roster. Without a tall target (tight ends excluded), the targets will largely go to Tarique Milton and Deshaunte Jones, who are completely different pass-catchers. 

As long as the ball is moving down the field, it won’t matter, but a rhythm will need to be established early in the season. 

(Or not, who knows if anything I say will come true. Best not to listen too closely).

The running back position has been a strength for much of Campbell’s coaching career, so I don’t think the position will be a total loss after the departure of Montgomery to the NFL. 

Sheldon Croney, Kene Nwangwu and Johnnie Lang are solid options who can contribute. 

I just think the addition of Breece Hall could be important come September.

The four-star recruit is an athletic runner with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, something I think will be more of a factor with the offense under Tom Manning’s watch once again. He might just be one of the most talented running backs Iowa State has seen since Troy Davis was on the sidelines of Jack Trice.

There are plenty of questions for Iowa State to answer when fall camp begins. Until then, the summer hype train will roll on — with the Cyclones in tow. 

Enjoy the ride, Iowa State fans. Lord knows you’ve waited long enough for it.