FOOTBALL: Seniors prepare for final home game

Graphic: Brian Hansen/Iowa State Daily

Graphic: Brian Hansen/Iowa State Daily

Jake Lovett —

The sun shined on Jack Trice Stadium last Saturday like it hadn’t in nearly a month.

Iowa State’s 6-foot-3, 333-pound center crouched down in the sunlight and reached down for the ball to get the offense’s first play of the game under way.

As so many of his have been, the snap was perfectly executed, floating gently into his quarterback’s hands, allowing him to set and throw a strike to his wide receiver for an eight-yard gain.

For the 37th time in the last 38 games of his now-illustrious career, Reggie Stephens set a block to start an ISU football game.

Stephens, a senior and four-year starter at three different positions on the offensive line, has become the centerpiece — no pun intended — for the Cyclones’ offense and the team as a whole. His teammates reaffirmed that when they elected him as captain before the season started.

“Reggie is more of a vocal leader,” ISU coach Paul Rhoads said about his star center. “He’s also a very good locker room, training room, off-the-field guy — getting in people’s ears, making sure people are doing the right things.”

The Rowlett, Texas, native has done much of his work in relative obscurity, playing for teams that have combined for 14 wins in his four years. But in the latter part of his career, Stephens has started to receive attention from NFL scouts, some projecting him as high as a mid-round pick in next April’s draft.

For Stephens, though, his individual success — offensive line coach Bill Bliel said he is “one of the better offensive lineman that [he’s] ever had the opportunity to coach,” — is somewhat overshadowed by the ups and downs of the Cyclones in his time with the team.

“Yes and no,” Stephens said when asked if this senior class has been successful. “We should have won more games than we have, but we’ve played pretty well. Our class, I think, has played pretty well.”

His class. Now, we’re at the heart of the matter.

Stephens, along with 19 other seniors, will say goodbye to Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, as the seniors will play their final home game in their collegiate careers against Colorado.

Unlike in years passed, though, the Cyclones will have something to play for come Saturday’s home finale. They sit at 5-5, just one win away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2005. That year Stephens and several other seniors — who were red shirting freshman at the time — watched the Cyclones lose to Texas Christian University in the Houston Bowl.

“If we go to a bowl game and win I feel like we will be a successful class,” said Stephens’ teammate and fellow senior Marquis Hamilton. “We came in to the bowl game, so this would be like the icing on the cake.”

Hamilton, a wide receiver from Oklahoma City, Okla., was Stephens’ roommate during their freshman year and has remained one of the big offensive lineman’s closest friends.

“We have a lot of memories and have had a lot of fun together. He’s a pretty good guy,” Hamilton said. “He’s made a tremendous impact on our team.”

But what of the 6-foot-3, 224-pound Hamilton?

One of the steadiest and most consistent performers in ISU history, Hamilton’s career in Ames will also come to a close on Saturday.

Hamilton’s impact on ISU football is much more easily quantified by statistics. The sure-handed receiver ranks ninth in both career receptions and receiving yards on Iowa State’s all-time lists, putting him with the likes of Cyclone stars — and former teammates — Todd Blythe and RJ Sumrall.

“He’s been so underrated,” Stephens said. “He’s been under the radar. He’s behind guys like [Jon Davis] and Todd Blythe and RJ [Sumrall], and just learning from those guys and becoming a great leader.”

There is that word again: Leader.

Rhoads, Stephens and Hamilton’s third head coach in their five-year stay in Ames, has called the offensive cogs two of the teams’ top leaders.

Both Stephens and Hamilton — as well as all of the seniors — were recruited by and played under Dan McCarney, for whom Rhoads worked in his first stint with Iowa State.

“As a senior class, going through the transitions and the adversity that they’ve been through, they’re going to be the most respectable as a group,” Rhoads said.

Rhoads also said the entire senior class bought into what he and his coaching staff wanted to do from their first day on campus, making his transition as a first-year head coach as seamless as such a move can be.

“It means everything to me,” Rhoads said. “I said the other day, I’ll be eternally indebted to them because of that. It’s a choice and there was no plan or strategy on how to sell them, it was just running our program.

“They have been a part of it with both feet in and all the way up to their head.”

The offense’s two key seniors — there will be five from the offense honored come Saturday afternoon — are not alone in their place with the team and the Iowa State program as a whole, though.

The defensive side of the ball relies just as much, if not more,on senior leaders.

As the sun still shined on the turf of Jack Trice, the ISU defense took the field with just three minutes passed in the first quarter.

A unit that had taken as much heat as any last year, giving up 41.75 points per game in conference games alone in 2008, has become one of the Big 12’s most improved units, allowing just 22.7 points per game in 2009.

On just its opponent’s second offensive play — a toss play to the left side of the defense — it was an ISU linebacker that chased the streaking running back down after a gain of 14.

Fred Garrin, a senior from Shepherd, Texas, has been chasing opposing backs down all season and racked up 71 tackles in his final year donning the cardinal and gold.

“Freddie has been logging a lot of snaps,” Rhoads said. “He plays fast and probably, as we looked at him in the spring, has played more than we thought he would at that point, which speaks of his growth over the summertime and during fall camp and into the season.”

The 6-foot-1, 227-pound linebacker’s growth has gone largely unnoticed in 2009.

He has already surpassed his career–high of 63 tackles set last season, and with two games left appears to be well on his way to being the number three tackler on the much-improved ISU defense.

But, it is one and two that have drawn most of the attention.

Jesse and James Smith are first and second for the Cyclones with 110 and 73 tackles through 10 games this year. The unrelated linebacker-safety duo finished one and two for Iowa State last year, as well, although in reverse order.

Jesse Smith, who hails from Altoona, is a former walk-on to the ISU football program who has since become one of the top tacklers in the Cyclones’ history.

His 110 tackles are by far the best in the Big 12 and he is sixth-best nationally at exactly 11 tackles per game. Smith has piled up 280 tackles in his career, just 51 away from cracking into the top ten.

Although he wouldn’t appear to be the greatest athlete, his coaches say Smith is one of the most athletic players on the defense and his teammates say he seems to have a knack for being where the ball is.

“I always give [Smith] a hard time because it seems like I’m always getting blocked and he’s always making the tackle,” Garrin said with a smile and a laugh. “But he says that’s how it’s supposed to be because he’s the [middle] linebacker.”

Smith, Garrin and Josh Raven, all seniors, make up the linebacking corps for Iowa State, but Smith’s play has somewhat overshadowed the two other linebackers.

James Smith, a native from Council Bluffs, credited the numerous coaching changes for Jesse Smith and the rest of the seniors’ progression through their time as Cyclones.

“We’ve learned about three different defenses, so he has the instinct to know where the ball is going to be at and is just out there making plays,” James Smith said.

But, even outside of the Smiths, Garrin and Raven, there are still three other seniors starting on the defense: cornerback Kennard Banks and linemen Nate Frere and Christopher Lyle.

Rhoads again credited the work of the defense’s seniors for the success and progression of the much-maligned Cyclones’ defense.

“I don’t know how the overall numbers with the yards and so forth but I know we’ve improved quite a bit as a defensive football team and that starts with them and the work that they’ve given,” Rhoads said.

The sun shined again, but this time into the Jacobson Athletic Building on the north side of Jack Trice Stadium on a Monday afternoon.

Senior after senior paraded in front of reporters. The press grilled the players about their  preparation for Colorado, the chance at bowl eligibility and their feelings about playing their final home game, but they answered all of the questions patiently and happily.

“It’s unreal right now. We’re seniors but it doesn’t seem that way,” Garrin said.

As unreal as it may seem to Garrin, the chances are real for the most experienced group of Cyclones.

With just hours until their final kickoff in front of tens of thousands of screaming Cyclone faithful, keeping the emotions of Senior Day in check may be one of the biggest challenges facing this group Saturday.

“When I first got here I never thought this time would come so quickly,” James Smith said. “That’s one of those things that’s bound to happen, so you know that I’m just going to go along with it and cherish the moments I do have here at Iowa State.”

Remembering the good moments, although somewhat few and far between, put smiles on the seniors’ faces.

The carrot dangling in front of their faces, though, is a trip to a bowl game that has so eluded them in their time in uniform.

“It would mean a lot. Come full circle, really,” Stephens said. “We came in as redshirt freshmen that weren’t playing and got to see that, and have had some rough times, but for us to go out and do that for our legacy would be huge for us.”

But, for some seniors, not even the looming prospect of finishing another season without a bowl berth can damper their spirits.

Instead, they’ll take away the larger lessons they’ve learned from their time — be it four years or five — as a Cyclone.

That time has been marred by coaching changes, losing records and general tumult, but the seniors’ attitudes — all 20 of them — have remained positive and upbeat through even the toughest weeks.

“I don’t have any regrets. I know I’ve left everything I had out on the field,” Stephens said. “So, I won’t be upset about that. I wish we could have won some more games, gone to more bowl games and stuff like that, but you’ve got to celebrate the good stuff.

“It’s a Cyclone family and we deserve to be here and we need to go out the right way.”