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Mid-season awards: Which Cyclones have excited so far?

Daniel Jacobi II
Iowa State’s Easton Dean (87) celebrates with his teammates after scoring a touchdown during the second half of the Jack Trice Legacy football game against Texas Christian University on Oct. 7, 2023, at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa. The touchdown would improve the Cyclones’ lead to 24-7.

Top offensive player

Christian Royston – Easton Dean, tight end

Okay, hear me out with this pick. I know it would be easy to pick one of Iowa State’s successful receivers or the man at the helm, Rocco Becht, but I wanted to go off the beaten path and give props to Dean.

Dean has been an unsung hero on Iowa State’s offense, as a stat sheet does not show the value he brings. He may not be the flashiest player, but he provides a lot on and off the field.

Dean has been efficient on the field with his limited targets. He has 10 catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.

However, despite just having 10 catches, there were a few performances where he was quiet, if not silent. Those games were the loss to Iowa, the loss to Ohio and the loss to Oklahoma.

One thing is in common with all of Dean’s rough games. He never got the ball. In the wins, Dean has done enough to move the Cyclones in the right direction.

It is clear when Dean gets the ball, the Cyclones win. However, being a threat in the air is not Dean’s most impactful trait. Dean has been a huge help in pulling the running game out of the gutters.

People underrate the importance of a blocking tight end. Dean has embodied the role of blocking tight end, as he can shove opposing defenders out of the way and create holes when needed.

That was displayed in the win against Cincinnati, as Dean made a crucial block on Chase Contreraz’s fake field goal to build momentum for the Cyclones.

Along with those traits, Dean is the only senior in a young tight-end room. His leadership has helped the tight ends become threats in the passing game. His impact on the team as a whole is what makes him the top offensive weapon.

Logan Shanks – Jayden Higgins, wide receiver

The junior wideout is coming off a career game as a Cyclone against Cincinnati, with six catches for 172 yards, and has proved himself throughout the season as one of Iowa State’s talented offensive threats.

Higgins has established himself as the true deep threat in the receiver room, a role that was empty for Iowa State heading into the season. The Eastern Kentucky transfer has had a catch-go for 15 or more yards in all but one game during his first season with the Cyclones.

His 75-yard reception against the Bearcats and 67-yard touchdown catch-and-run against Oklahoma helped bring his yards per catch up to 19, which leads the team. Higgins also leads the team in receiving yards with 438 on 23 catches, with three of those snags going for touchdowns.

Although Higgins has had a handful of games where he recorded just one catch, he’s made his touches count, especially in conference play. He currently sits with the sixth-most yards in the Big 12 against conference opponents, with 297 on 11 catches.

Higgins has certainly proved the doubters wrong after entering the transfer portal as a zero-star transfer prospect, according to 247Sports, and has been just one of the receivers that has made first-year starting quarterback Becht’s job a little easier.

Pavle Markovic – Jaylin Noel, wide receiver

Coming into the 2023 season, Noel looked to fill in as the No. 1 receiver on the Cyclone offense following Xavier Hutchinson’s departure to the NFL.

Noel, with two prior seasons with the Cyclones under his belt, has shown his promise and become a great receiving threat in the Iowa State offense, as he only seems to be getting better and better.

But as for this season, Noel has continued to show his ability to only improve, as in six games played this season, Noel has 34 catches for 308 yards and three touchdowns.

Jaylin Noel returns a kickoff against Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Oct. 14, 2023. (Tyler Coe)

Noel missed the Ohio game due to a lingering illness surrounding the team and has still been productive in every game he has played.

Noel’s best game of the season so far has been, hands down, his performance against Oklahoma State, in which he helped lead the team to their first Big 12 win of the season. Against Oklahoma State, Noel collected eight catches for 146 yards and a touchdown.

While he has shown to have a big impact on the offense, Noel has been a huge part of the special teams unit this season as well.

Noel returned two kicks for a total of 110 yards against Cincinnati. He also returned 11 punts back for 74 yards to set up the Cyclone offense in great field position throughout the season.

Even with other wide receivers like Higgins and Daniel Jackson starting to make an impact on the young Iowa State offense, Noel has proven to be a reliable weapon.

Top defensive player

Christian Royston – Beau Freyler, defensive back

As experienced as the defense is, there are many players that are top players. However, the man that has stood out the most to me is Freyler.

With some of the recent tackling issues, Freyler is the guy who constantly wraps up his man. He currently leads the team in total tackles by a hefty amount, as he has racked up 54 on the season.

Along with those tackles—and his 22 solo tackles—Freyler also has a sack on the season. Freyler’s presence and dominance in the middle of the field have been noticeable.

Along with his tackles, Freyler has proved himself as a major threat in the air. He has three interceptions so far, with two being against TCU.

Freyler continues to improve and show off his relentlessness on defense. With issues cropping up from time to time, Freyler is one guy who has been consistently elite.

Logan Shanks – Caleb Bacon, linebacker

From his first game taking defensive reps against Northern Iowa, the Cyclones knew they had a diamond in the rough in their redshirt sophomore linebacker.

Bacon started the season with a pair of sacks against the Panthers, and while he hasn’t gotten any since, the Iowa native has proved himself as a play wrecker for Iowa State throughout the season. The preferred walk-on from Lake Mills, Iowa, has amassed the fourth-most tackles on the team (29), which leads the Cyclones’ deep linebacker room.

Iowa State’s Caleb Bacon (50) celebrates with Trevon Howard (25) after completing a sack during the first half of the football game against Oklahoma State on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames. (Daniel Jacobi II)

When he’s on the field, Bacon has been determined to make an impact for the Cyclone defense, and his electric presence on the gridiron has been a delightful surprise for Iowa State. He has accumulated five or more tackles in four out of seven games this season and has established himself as one of the Cyclones’ best linebackers that is asked to drop back into coverage.

With an NIL deal and the determination from head coach Matt Campbell to get him on scholarship, Bacon has no doubt made a huge impact during his first season as a rotational player for the Cyclone defense.

Pavle Markovic – T.J. Tampa, defensive back

Tampa came into this season as one of the top defensive backs, not just on the team but in the entire nation.

He showed flashes of greatness through the three seasons with Iowa State, and many expected him to continue that greatness into the 2023 season.

However, Tampa did not have the big jumpout game to start off the season, as he only had one total tackle in the win versus Northern Iowa.

Ever since that game, Tampa has been a monster on the field, making plays wherever and whenever he could.

Tampa currently leads the team in passes defended (six) and is second in solo tackles on the team (21). Tampa also has two interceptions and 26 total tackles in seven games played.

Tampa has shown to be a veteran presence for the other defensive backs, as he’s only elevated their play, as guys like defensive back Jeremiah Cooper have made a huge impact on the Cyclones’ defense.

Most exciting to watch

Christian Royston – Brendan Black, offensive lineman

If you have not heard of Black or watched him work on the offensive line, I would suggest throwing on some tape.

Over the first half of the Big 12 season, Black has proven why he is the first true freshman to start at right guard in over 15 years. He may have taken some time to work his way up the depth chart, but now he is here and ready to dominate.

Before the season, the entire offensive line was boasting a new look and mentality for the season. They wanted to be violent and show opposing defenders that they could be the aggressors.

However, despite that strong mentality, the offensive line struggled through the start of the season to back up what they were saying. It was not until Black hit the line that results started to show through.

Black’s biggest asset has been his strength. Coaches and players constantly marvel at how strong he is, not just for a freshman but as an athlete. Black is already one of the strongest players on the team, rivaling other powerhouses like Domonique Orange.

Black’s strength is not just gym strength, either. The way Black throws opposing defenders all over the place and pushes whoever is in front of him with ease shows how strong he really is.

Watching back over the win against TCU, Black was a big factor in the run game, as he ripped open holes for his running backs constantly. Watching Black push defenders 10–15 yards down the field was incredible.

Going forward, Black will have more chances to show off his exciting strength and continue to help out the run game.

Logan Shanks – Abu Sama III, running back

Although the run game struggled at the beginning of the season, Sama has shown electric speed and shiftiness when given the ball and a hole to run through and has already shown off a ton of talent during his true freshman season.

Abu Sama III moves the ball forward during the ISU vs. OU football game at Gaylord Memorial Stadium in Norman, OK on Sept. 30, 2023. (Jacob Rice)

Sama was unavailable for the game against Cincinnati, but in the two games before that, he averaged nearly 10 yards per carry against TCU and Oklahoma. In those two games, Sama compiled 126 yards on 13 carries, including a 55-yard touchdown run against the Horned Frogs and a 39-yard rush against the Sooners.

Because Iowa State has embraced the running-back-by-committee mentality with its deep running back room, Sama has set himself apart as one of the front runners to take over as the leading tailback if the opportunity comes his way. He leads the running back room in yards per carry (5.1) and is third on the team in rushing yards (192) on 38 carries.

The former high school track star has given the Cyclones a speedster in the backfield that they haven’t had in recent years, and when the ball is in his hands, his blazing speed has posed one of the biggest threats to opposing defenses in Big 12 play.

Pavle Markovic – Eli Sanders, running back

In what seemed to be a crowded running back room entering the season, Sanders had some work ahead of him if he wanted to see the majority of the carries for the team.

Midway through the season, Sanders has certainly made his presence known in the Cyclones’ offense in his five games played. In those five games, Sanders has become Iowa State’s leading rusher with 263 yards on the ground in 59 attempts with two touchdowns.

Sanders is now in his third season with the Cyclones, but it took him a while to get to where he is on the roster today. He had a massive jump in workload from year one to year two, as he ran for 168 more yards on 38 more attempts in that jump.

Sanders has only improved his skills each season he has been a part of the team, and he does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

This season, Sanders has been a vital piece in establishing the run game for Iowa State with his hard running ability to get as many yards as he possibly can. Look for him to continue his breakout performance throughout the final push of the season.

Our individual player awards

Christian Royston

Best walk-on – Ben Nikkel, defensive back

There have been a few walk-ons that have made a name for themselves throughout the 2023 season.

However, the one player that sticks out the most has been Nikkel. Not only has Nikkel been airtight on special teams, but he has looked good enough to start on defense many times throughout the season.

Nikkel has highlight plays nearly every game. If he’s not making a game-saving pass breakup, he is wrapping up an opposing player right before a first down. Nearly every time Nikkel touches the field, he is bound to do some good.

Nikkel also nearly got a touchdown early in the Big 12 season, as he recovered a fumble and nearly ran it into the end zone. Overall, Nikkel has been solid in the time he plays, which is all you can ask from a walk-on.

There is a reason that Nikkel earned his scholarship before the season, and he is proving each week why he deserves it.

Logan Shanks

Best new starter – Rocco Becht, quarterback

While many Cyclones were thrown into starting roles, Becht undoubtedly had the most pressure heading into his redshirt freshman season. Outside of a few “growing pain” moments throughout the season, the first-year signal-caller has answered the call to command the offense and execute on opportunities created by his defense.

Since the start of Big 12 play, it’s looked like the coaching staff has opened up the playbook for Becht, which for the most part, has worked in the Cyclones’ favor. The Florida native has completed 60% of his passes for 1,464 yards, 12 touchdown passes and two more on the ground.

Rocco Becht throws the ball downfield against Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Oct. 14, 2023. (Tyler Coe)

While many will look at the multiple-interception games in which the Cyclones lost on the road against Oklahoma and Ohio, what’s more important is the amount of growth and variety of play Becht has shown.

In the Cyclones’ four wins this year, Becht has 10 total touchdowns and zero interceptions. In those four wins, he served as a game manager against TCU and UNI and the heart of the offense against Oklahoma State and Cincinnati. When Becht plays clean and smart, it fairs well for Iowa State.

Iowa State grabbing its first conference road win since 2021 alone would be enough for the young offense to celebrate, but sitting second in the conference with a 3-1 record and great quarterback play makes the first half of the season even more inspiring for the rest of the way.

After months of speculation of who the new starter behind center would be for the Cyclones, Becht has proven himself through his first seven games with an undefined ceiling above him.

Pavle Markovic

Best acquisition of the offseason – Chase Contreraz, kicker

Another huge part of Iowa State’s recent success this season has come from the Nebraska transfer in Contreraz.

Iowa State was in need of a reliable kicker, as the kicking situation a season prior had room for improvement, to say the least. Contreraz had come in with prior success with Nebraska, as he was perfect in his 11 extra-point attempts while going two-for-four in field goals in 2022.

Through the midpoint of the 2023 season, Contreraz has been that reliable kicker for Iowa State as he has been perfect once again in extra points, converting all 17 he took.

As for field goals, Contreraz has been solid, making 12 of his 16 attempts, one of which was blocked in the game versus Iowa.

Contreraz has also shown to have a powerful leg as he converted a career-high field goal against Northern Iowa with a 56-yard attempt.

Contreraz’s successes have been a vital part of Iowa State’s recent success this season, as he has been honored with the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week award twice this season.

It’s safe to say that if the Cyclones need someone to rely on to put points up on the board, Contreraz has and will continue to be that guy throughout the rest of the season.

The “That Guy” award

Christian Royston – Chase Contreraz, kicker

It might be weird to double up and give a player two awards, but if anyone deserves a second shoutout, it is Contreraz.

The transfer from Nebraska has been dominant when he touches the field. Despite a few uncharacteristic misses, Contreraz is a guaranteed three points whenever he steps out to kick.

So far on the season, Contreraz is 12 for 16 in field goals, with a couple coming from far out. Along with that, he has made all 17 of his extra points. A third of Iowa State’s points have come off the foot of Contreraz.

Contreraz also is not just making easy kicks. He constantly makes long field goals and has already gotten the team’s confidence in putting him on the field for field goals over 50 yards. Contreraz has made six field goals of over 40 yards.

Contreraz proved the strength of his foot in the win over Oklahoma State, where he kicked a 48-yarder into a strong headwind and nailed a 51-yarder on the same day. His longest kick came in the first game of the season, where he nailed a 56-yard field goal.

Along with his success in the kicking department, Contreraz showed off his legs against Cincinnati when he faked a field goal and barrelled forward for a first down to set up a Cyclone touchdown.

When asked about the fake after the game, Contreraz said that he knew he was going to do it and make it. He was just upset he didn’t punch it into the end zone.

That winning mentality and confidence are why he has become “the guy.”

Logan Shanks – Benjamin Brahmer, tight end

If he isn’t noticed by his size, Brahmer has surely made an impact on the field halfway through his true freshman season. The 6’7” tight end from Nebraska has had a sneakily good first season with Iowa State with his 14 catches, 167 yards and two touchdowns.

Brahmer is another true freshman who has made his presence felt early in a veteran room with his 36-yard touchdown catch against UNI.

Benjamin Brahmer nearly hauls in a one-handed catch against Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Oct. 14, 2023. (Tyler Coe)

From there on out, he has outplayed Dean, Stevo Klotz and Tyler Moore and has earned a spot on the Football Writers Association of America’s watchlist for the freshman All-American team.

Brahmer has had two or more catches in four of his six games this season, with one of those performances coming against Cincinnati, where he caught his second touchdown of the season after dropping one in the first quarter. With his ability to have a short memory and find an open space in the end zone, he continued his rise as one of the best freshman tight ends in the nation.

Pavle Markovic – Jeremiah Cooper, defensive back

During the offseason, I had Cooper as a potential defensive sleeper to watch on the Cyclones heading into the season, and he certainly surpassed my expectations.

Cooper came into the 2023 season with a chip on his shoulder, as a year prior, he dealt with an injury that kept him from finishing out his freshman campaign.

In the time that Cooper played in 2022, he had shown the potential to be one of the better defensive backs that Iowa State had on their roster.

In nine games played in 2022, Cooper collected 32 total tackles, 19 solo tackles and a pass defended. While these numbers don’t jump off the page, he still shows flashes of potential greatness on the field.

Now flash-forward to the midway point of the 2023 season, and Cooper has hands down been one of the best, if not the best, defensive players on the Iowa State defense.

So far, in seven games played, Cooper has totaled up 33 total tackles, 16 solo tackles, four passes defended and five interceptions.

Cooper has been a ball hawk all season long and does not miss opportunities to get takeaways for the Cyclones. His five interceptions lead not only in the Big 12, but he leads the entire nation in interceptions.

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