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Returned experience highlights Iowa State offensive line

Jacob Rice
Ryan Clanton speaks with the offensive line during the ISU vs. BYU football game. LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, Utah, Nov. 11, 2023

AMES — With the first season at Iowa State behind offensive line coach Ryan Clanton, the focus for the spring is to further imprint the culture he has laid down for his room.

Iowa State returns all five starters from last season’s offensive line. What Clanton has made clear is that with the depth of the offensive line room, anyone can have a shot to play in the fall.

“The impressive piece is the guys we have competing in the room,” Clanton said. “A lot of the players from last year proved that we will play young guys. We will play the best five.”

One of those five last season was James Neal, who started all 13 games at the left tackle position. Neal’s 2023 season was proof of the mindset Clanton has, given his somewhat short football career.

The road for Neal to get to where he is now has not been easy by any means. Neal was primarily focused on basketball in high school and did not give football a thought, especially at the collegiate level.

“I was playing [basketball] until my junior year, so I was pretty locked in on it,” Neal said. “Hearing everybody say you should be playing football, so I just gave it a try and here we are.”

An integral part of the offensive line, Neal saw rapid growth and improvement over the season. Clanton and Neal would watch old film from earlier in the season and laugh and joke about mistakes Neal made when he first played.

“He’s big, and he’s athletic,” Clanton said. “The fun thing about James Neal is if you watch his film from the beginning of the year and then watch his film towards the end of the year, it’s a whole different person.”

Clanton said the way Neal presents himself is what sets him apart and what brings the whole group together. With experience everywhere, all of the returners will be looked to as leaders, Neal being a prime example.

“He’s got a really infectious personality,” Clanton said. “He’s always smiling. It’s really hard to bring him down, and that really leaks into the rest of the group.”

Neal was one of the Cyclones that has been moved around in spring ball and has seen different positions. Typically at the tackle position, Neal has tried playing guard in spring practices.

Other linemen may be moved around as well, either for experience when filling in a gap that may be needed, or possibly for a permanent change.

“We have guys playing multiple positions,” Clanton said. “We have guys playing with confidence. We have a group and an O-line room that loves and respects each other.”

The area the offensive line shined in was both the pass and the run. The Cyclones gave up 14 sacks, and tied for 11th in the nation for the lowest number of sacks given up all season.

Now, Clanton takes over as the run game coordinator for 2024. With the returned experience of the starters and their ability to keep the pocket from collapsing on quarterback Rocco Becht, added with Clanton’s extended role in the run game, the offensive line has some lofty expectations for the fall.

“We set the standard here really high,” redshirt senior Tyler Miller said. “When we originally came back after that bowl game loss, we really all put our heads down. We just worked our tail off to get where we’re at now. We’re still here trying to continue to raise that standard.”

The biggest thing is that the whole offensive line room is buying into what Clanton is selling. With a big personality, Clanton is changing the culture of the room in a big way.

“He’s pretty funny,” Miller said. “Certain days he’ll be all fired up and he comes in the room yelling and making jokes. He’s a very energetic guy, always good to be around him.”

That personality is not always fun and games, however. Clanton knows there is a goal at hand and wants his linemen to fully believe in each other.

“You can’t say things and then not be about it,” Clanton said. “I’m about it.”

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Jacob Rice, Visual Editor
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