The opposition within the Cyclones

Matt Gubbels

For college football teams to be prepared for their games on Saturdays, they need the help of players that may never play a down during the season.

The team has to be prepared for what it will see from its opponent during the game, and game film can not show the speed and power with which an offense is run nor the tempo that a team executes it with. The scout team has the challenging job of trying to give their teammates a good representation of what they will see on Saturday, while learning the ins and outs of the next opponent’s system in just a matter of one or two days.

The ISU football team is no different than any other team in this respect, and this week, as the team prepares for the Kansas State Wildcats, will be the same as another week.

Offensive coordinator Robert McFarland said the scout team has a tremendous demand, no matter the week, and there is not much glory in being a scout team member.

“They’re always being challenged to make it look like the opponent that you’re playing at the speed and tempo that they do it,” McFarland said. “There’s a group of guys over there that can really do nothing right for an offense that they’ve just looked at on a piece of paper and tried to execute.”

Linebacker Curtiz Mathis, a freshman from Harvey, Ill., said the coaches try to make it a little bit easier each week for the players to execute the plays.

“They have cards for us, so you catch on real quick,” Mathis said. “It is fun learning the plays; we get to other team’s defenses, so when we play them next year we can give the scout team a little idea what they run.”

This week the scout team will have a short turnaround from getting the team ready to face a Missouri team that differs considerably in schemes from Kansas State. They will have to prepare the offense for a ball-hawking Wildcat secondary that has intercepted 16 passes and the offense will have to prepare the defense for a team that includes the nation’s second-leading receiver, Jordy Nelson.

Defense coordinator Wayne Bolt said this scout team is up to the task every week.

“Our scout team has probably been the best scout team that I’ve ever been associated with in coaching,” Bolt said. “They’re self-motivated, a lot of them don’t have scholarships.”

Some scout team members for the Cyclones receive a little extra motivation from coach Gene Chizik, however. Chizik takes the scout team players of the week on the road with the team. All scout team members get to suit up and run out of the tunnel in front of the 50,000 fans at Jack Trice Stadium for home games.

Senior wide receiver Todd Blythe said the play of the scout team is vital to the play of the starters on Saturday.

“They have to learn an entire defense basically in a couple of days so they can give us a good look,” Blythe said. “When we go out there on Saturday, we can recognize things that the defense is doing from practice, so it’s real important to us.”

The scout team also knows that, for the team to win, they have to do their jobs well during the week. Both Mathis and defensive lineman Jerrod Black, a freshman from Houston, Texas, said, when the team loses, the scout team feels it could have done a better job of preparation.

“You have to make them ready everyday, because, if we lose, you kind of feel that it’s your fault,” Black said.

“When we lose we kind of feel bad, its like did we work hard enough?” Mathis said. “There is a pride [issue] there.”

The scout teams are units that are composed of walk-ons, transfer players, and freshmen who are redshirting in their first year at Iowa State. Due to the possibility of injuries, teams can not have their starting units work against each other in practice, so the scout team defense prepares the starting offense and vice versa.

Even though these players may be at different points in their careers and may be headed in different directions with their playing, there is a bond that develops between these players as they battle some of the best players in the Big 12 Conference in practice.

A native of the small town of Kamrar, quarterback Nate Mechaelsen said there is a little bit of trash talking that even goes on between the two groups.

“If we crack a big play, we get up in their face about it a little bit,” Mechaelsen said. “If they stuff a run or something they give it back at us, so it’s a good time.”

Walk-ons are players who don’t have scholarships but still try to help the team in any way they can. Walk-ons, who do play at an exceptionally high level, can earn themselves scholarships in practice.

Chizik gave six players who played for former coach Dan McCarney as walk-ons scholarships before the season. That group includes sophomore starting middle linebacker Jesse Smith, who is third on the team in tackles, and running back Alexander Robinson, who had 149 yards rushing against Missouri on Saturday.

Bolt said players like that are the ones who help the team get better every day.

“They do it for the love of the game and a love for Iowa State,” Bolt said.

Among those walk-ons is Mechaelsen, who said it is a great opportunity to play against the starters every day in practice.

“The scout team is not where you want to be,” Mechaelsen said. “The scout team is a place where you can work on your game against the best guys on the defensive side of the ball.”

In the case of freshmen, few players are ready to play right away and many have the talent but need time to learn the college game. The way to give players like that a chance to prepare is to redshirt them, which allows them to practice for a year and still have four years of eligibility.

McFarland said coaches try to redshirt all of the players they can to start their career to give them time for that adjustment period.

“I think redshirting a player and letting them play those scout units is just one of the best things you can do for a college football player,” McFarland said. “You give them that year to adjust to school, to adjust to living away from home, and just to adjust to basic college life.

“You also get a feel of the speed of the game, and you get a feel of the intensity of the game,” McFarland said.

That change in the speed of the game is, for many players, the toughest change from high school football to college football.

Mathis said as he gets adjusted to that, college football comes a little bit easier.

“When I first got here in the summer, I looked so slow,” Mathis said. “But now I’m getting adjusted to that and to the system, so the tempo has picked up a little bit for me.”

In the case of the ISU football team and several others around the nation, the scout team members also have to lift and work out before even going to practice. After that, they still have to go out and prepare All-Big 12 players like senior Alvin Bowen for games, all while taking a pounding in the process.

Black said it is a challenge having to go to practice with some fatigue already.

“Everybody is tired but you have to push through,” Black said. “We try to make it fun every day, either way, we’re all here to make each other better.”

McFarland said the amount of repetitions in practice that these players get teaches them several techniques they can use later in their careers.

“They learn how to counteract some of these veteran players and make those moves as time goes on,” McFarland said. “There’s not a lot of depth sometimes on those scout units, so you have to get a two- or three-man rotation going at maybe five positions.”

The scout team includes several players who will not see the field this season for the Cyclones, which can be a hard pill to swallow for incoming players who had been All-Conference or All-State players at their high school or junior college. Some of them are even highly recruited by many programs but their coaches feel they are not ready to play at the level they need to for them to be successful every Saturday.

Mathis said it is hard to make that adjustment sometimes.

“You want to play because you are out there helping them,” Mathis said. “You want to go on the field and actually do what you’ve been taught.

“I have to help them in practice instead of the game.”

Mechaelsen said the players come here to play but they can’t let get in the way of their role in helping the team.

“You realize you have your spot on the team,” Mechaelsen said. “You need to do whatever you can do to help the team win and that’s what we do.”

Even players who are starters now started their careers on the scout team. Blythe, who is a four-year starter and has been one of the leading receivers on the Cyclones’ last four teams, was a member of a scout team offense in his initial season in 2003, where he caught passes from current four-year starter at quarterback Bret Meyer. Senior Bryce Braaksma and sophomore James Smith, who both start on defense, have also been scout team members as redshirts during their careers.

Blythe said he took the opportunity of matching up with players like current New England Patriot Ellis Hobbs and Nick Leaders in practice every day as a challenge.

“That was a long time ago; I was going up against guys that started week in and week out in the Big 12,” Blythe said. “I felt, if I could make plays in practice against them, I knew when it was my turn to go out and play on Saturdays that I would be able to make plays.”

“Tuesday through Friday, you have a game every day because you’re not playing on Saturday and that’s kind of the attitude you have to take,” Blythe said.