Notebook: Young Cyclones talk preparation, accountability during spring ball

Iowa State receiver Jaylin Noel runs with the ball against No. 19 Clemson in the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl on Dec. 29. Noel finished with four catches for 54 yards.

Matt Belinson

The prevailing theme of Iowa State spring football is young and sometimes unfamiliar names taking center stage in the replacement of program-changing players.

Two position groups that fit that bill are the Cyclones’ wide receivers and defensive backs — with scattered production returning to the respective positions for the 2022 season.

Xavier Hutchinson grabs the headlines — and likely the overwhelming attention from opposing defenses — at wideout this year after back-to-back First Team All-Big 12 selections.

Hutchinson led the Big 12 in catches (83) for the second-straight season in 2021 and broke Iowa State’s single-season school record in the process. He put up 987 receiving yards with five touchdown catches. 

However, the redshirt senior is the only Cyclone wideout on the 2022 spring roster to catch more than 40 passes in a season.

Still, Iowa State is confident in its young group of receivers to bring production to the table, as well as veterans returning to 100 percent after missing time over the last two seasons.

That list of additional receiving targets starts with sophomore Jaylin Noel.

Noel caught 39 passes for 269 yards and zero touchdowns last season as a freshman, cementing himself as the Cyclones’ number-two option behind Hutchinson at receiver.

The native of Kansas City, Mo., was praised for his ability to learn on the fly and bring a sense of maturity about him last season. As spring practice for the 2022 season continues, Noel said it’s all about being more intentional with how he approaches his work.

And in some cases, he’s trying to slow things down. After all, he’s still learning.

“A big emphasis for me this offseason has been slowing my game down,” Noel said Tuesday. “For me, I rely on my speed a lot, but being able to take my time and work on getting in and out of my cuts, that way the [defensive back] can’t just play on me.”

Noel watched first-hand last season the benefit of playing with an All-Big 12 player such as Hutchinson and is working to emulate his dominance over Big 12 defenses.

When Noel watches Hutchinson, he sees a receiver thoroughly beat his man in coverage and plays with a grit and competitive edge.

Noel said it’s hard to not want to be like that.

“When I do film study, a lot of his reps is what I watch,” Noel said. “He’s definitely a role model for me and seeing what he’s done in the Big 12 these past two years is really something I see myself doing.”

Outside of Noel and Hutchinson, Iowa State’s wide receivers are made up of Sean Shaw Jr, Darren Wilson and Daniel Jackson in terms of experienced targets.

Between Shaw, Jackson and Wilson, the trio caught 24 passes last season.

But a new crop of freshmen has impressed the coaching staff and players in spring ball. And the common name mentioned early in media sessions has been Greg Gaines III, a top-35 receiver prospect from Tampa, Fla.

“Greg Gaines has certainly been impressive,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said Monday. “He’s come in with a high sense of confidence.”

Tristan Michaud and Aidan Bitter round out the rest of a receiver room, looking to add playmakers for Hunter Dekkers.

Young secondary with high accountability

Beau Freyler may be just a sophomore, but the trust Iowa State has placed in him is nothing like an underclassman.

The 6-foot-2 safety played in all 13 games as a freshman last season for the Cyclones and was named Honorable Mention All-Big 12.

But where he shined the most for the Cyclone coaching staff was Dec. 29 in Orlando against Clemson in the Cheez-It Bowl.

Freyler got his first career start against the Tigers and recorded a career-high 15 tackles in Iowa State’s 20–13 loss. His 15 tackles tied for the third-most by a Cyclone in a bowl game and the most by a freshman.

And that’s where Freyler watched his hard work pay off.

“It really gave a good opportunity to a lot of young players to come in and show what we’ve got,” Freyler said of young players getting playing time in the Cheez-It Bowl. “I feel like it’s a tribute to the preparation and team-mentality that everyone’s working hard.”

Young players to watch in the secondary in the spring include fellow sophomore safeties, Craig McDonald and Jordyn Morgan. Malik Verdon and Mason Chambers round out the young guns in the safety room.

As roles shift and some players enter the spotlight for the first time, Freyler said Iowa State will have to keep standards high and hold each player accountable.

“In my personal opinion, we can improve pushing each other and holding each other accountable,” Freyler said. “I feel that already through winter workouts, getting extra work outside the workouts.”

Over with the cornerbacks, a veteran could be switching his spot on the field.

Redshirt senior Anthony Johnson could move from corner to safety this season after getting the blessing from Cyclone coaches, with Campbell saying Johnson has the natural ability to make the switch should he choose to do so.

“It’s a great credit to Anthony,” Campbell said Monday. “I think from Anthony’s perspective, he’s been a phenomenal corner. I think his physicality, his ability to run and cover really lends great for him to play the safety position.”

“He’s a guy that has high-end ability to play at the next level at the safety position,” Campbell said.

If Johnson were to leave his spot at cornerback, the Cyclones have a solid group to work with.

Junior cornerback T.J. Tampa and senior corner Tayvonn Kyle have the most experience with 22 and 30 games played, respectively.

Sophomore Myles Purchase and senior D.J. Miller Jr. round out a group that features plenty of competition in spring ball.