Cornerback depth, quarterback consistency key for Iowa State

Iowa State defensive back Anthony Johnson Jr. helps tackle West Virginia’s Winston Wright Jr. during Iowa State and West Virginia’s game Dec. 5 at Jack Trice Stadium.

James Powell

Iowa State’s veteran roster doesn’t provide many opportunities for speculation, with 19 returning starters from a 9-3 season in 2020. But experience has given the Cyclones the ability to work on building the depth behind them at their respective position groups and focus on doing their jobs.

There’s certainly no sign of slowing down in terms of competition, and that’s abundantly clear at the cornerback position. Meanwhile, quarterback Brock Purdy seems to have a sense of calm and relief now that the work put in since he has been here has resulted in him being able to worry about running the offense, instead of being the Cyclones’ savior.

Quarterbacks coach Joel Gordon, cornerbacks coach Matt Caponi, redshirt-senior cornerback Datrone Young and Purdy all spoke to the media about the upcoming season Wednesday, and what their perception of their respective position group looks like as fall camp winds down and the season itself gets kicked into gear.

Cornerbacks willing to provide depth and competition

Each and every position for Iowa State this season will provide a large amount of depth.

Anthony Johnson Jr., a first string cornerback for the Cyclones in 2020, returns for his senior season, and is ready to lead this group of corners to the next level. Caponi sees Johnson’s value to this team in his experience, as well as his mentality.

“Anthony’s really put in the work, which has allowed him to mature, and allowed him to become a great leader and play with more poise,” Caponi said.

Tayvonn Kyle was the other starter at cornerback for the Cyclones last year, and he returns for his redshirt junior season. In addition, second-stringer T.J. Tampa is going into his sophomore season to provide additional support. 

With both starters back in the fold, and three out of the top four cornerbacks suiting up again, Iowa State already has an abundance of talent and experience at the position. Caponi doesn’t believe it stops there, however.

“I feel there’s probably six or seven guys there that can go out and get us through a football game,” Caponi said.

While just getting through a game is surely not what Caponi is striving for, it speaks even more to Iowa State’s depth at the position and how many players he already feels can contribute to any game in a meaningful way.

It’s well documented that Matt Campbell and his staff have shifted recently to pitting the starters against the starters in fall camp. Those “good on good” first team reps would be good for any team with as much experience as Iowa State, and senior corner Datrone Young certainly believes it’s helped sharpen his position group’s skills.

“It’s competition, I feel like everybody’s getting better from it, and it’s making us better as a unit,” Young said.

Young also believes that Campbell eventually made the switch to matching up the way they do now because of the competition at each position. 

“[Campbell] understood that it was just something we had to do now,” Young said.

Purdy ready to fit into the game-plan instead of taking over

Purdy took the world by storm in 2018 when he came into his first collegiate start for the Cyclones at Boone Pickens Stadium against Oklahoma State and he never looked back.

Since then Purdy has started the last 34 games and has broken all sorts of school records, including highest full-season completion percentage (66.6 percent), career touchdown passes (62), and full-season passing yards (3,982 in 2019).

Purdy’s name is written all over the record books, but there are certainly more to be broken. However, all those starts and records have led him to seemingly take a different approach this season, and that’s to fit in on offense and make the right play every time.

“A couple years ago (Iowa State) wanted a “guy”, they needed a “guy” in this program. I wanted to be that for them. I feel like there was a lot of pressure,” he said. “Now they expect me to be a quarterback and do the right thing, there’s no added pressure. They know what I’m going to do for them and I know what they’ll do for me.”

Certainly there are playmakers that have stepped up since Purdy stepped on the field for the first time, such as Breece Hall and Xavier Hutchinson. Purdy knows what he can bring to the table as a quarterback, and he’s focused going into his fourth year on making the right play, not the flashiest one.

The attitude of the team is usually reflective of their quarterback. And while Purdy may be letting off the gas slightly in terms of making big plays, the team knows that Purdy brings a consistency and durability that is well-documented. His coach, Joel Gordon, admires his quarterback’s willingness and ability to be there on the field.

“You’re going to have to pull him off the field, he’s a tough dude… Brock has worked really hard to change his body to the best of his ability,” Gordon said.

Gordon noted that it took Purdy trying to “run over guys” during a game against Oklahoma State to realize that it’s easy to get beaten and battered playing the way Purdy does, where he consistently escapes the pocket and runs the ball.

Purdy appears to be carving out a more sustainable and less aggressive role as signal-caller for the Cyclone offense, proving there’s always things to work on as a college quarterback, even when he has etched his name in Cyclone lore as often as he has.