Spring football mailbag: Thoughts on defensive backs, Hunter Dekkers and more

Iowa State quarterback Hunter Dekkers warms up on the sideline during the Cyclones’ 27-17 loss to Iowa in the Iowa Corn CyHawk Series on Sept. 11, 2021.

Iowa State spring football is here, offering plenty of questions as to how the Cyclones will try to replace some of the best players in program history for the 2022 season and beyond.

A total of 17 starters from 2021 have left the program, setting the stage for a new crop of Cyclones to take the reins of Matt Campbell’s program.

There are plenty of questions. And we’ve got answers.

The Iowa State Daily football writers, Matt Belinson, James Powell and Andrew Harrington, responded to some of your questions in a special spring football mailbag.

Let’s get started.

Which young player could be a breakout this season?

There are many candidates that you could argue as breakout stars in the upcoming season.

You could go with the young running back tandem of Deon Silas and Eli Sanders, the likely starting quarterback Hunter Dekkers or the redshirt sophomore J.R. Singleton.

But there is one that sticks out the most in my opinion and that’s Beau Freyler.

Freyler flew under the radar for most of the season, but a few bowl game opt-outs allowed fans to see what he can do. Recording his first career start, Freyler racked up 15 tackles, showcasing what he can do on a big stage.

Freyler was also selected as an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention. If he is capable of doing this with his only start coming in the bowl game, the sky is the limit for him in his second season.

 – Andrew Harrington

Why should I be excited about the Hunter Dekkers era?

In my opinion, this is the question surrounding Iowa State football.

Hunter Dekkers, fair or not, will start and likely play his entire career being compared to Brock Purdy.

And I think if you talk to most Cyclone fans, there’s a greater sense of curiosity about him, rather than pure excitement. And that’s warranted.

This will be a new experience for many Iowa State fans, with Purdy providing such stability at the position over the last four seasons. Purdy was the ultimate game manager and mastered the Cyclone offense. 

When it comes to Dekkers, we really don’t know much about his game.

The 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore completed 20-of-31 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns in four games last season — with most of those reps coming in garbage time.

For Dekkers and Iowa State, I think the first half of the season, and maybe the entire 2022 slate, is about finding a comfortability in the offense. Purdy had the benefit of working with proven pieces like David Montgomery, Breece Hall, Charlie Kolar, Chase Allen and more.

As we enter spring ball, Dekkers will not only have to take the reins from a program-great, he’ll have to work with lots of first-time starters at the skill positions.

But, without question, this next era of Cyclone football will have Dekkers in the center of it. I think at this point, all fans can do is have excitement, basic intrigue or a combination of the two.

– Matt Belinson

Who will be our tight ends for this season?

With Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen headed to the NFL, this opens a pair of spots in an offense that loves to run multi-tight end schemes. So which players are likely to fill these roles?

Jared Rus will likely retain his role as a fullback-tight end hybrid. Rus did it all in the previous season, clearing the way for players in the run game and making some crucial catches from the backfield. This versatility landed him First Team All-Big 12 honors in the previous season.

While he may not be a volume player in terms of racking up yards, Rus will have a big role in the offense during the coming season.

Easton Dean, a redshirt junior, has primarily played on special teams in his career; however, with some spots opening up on the offense, expect him to see an increased role. He has just two career catches, but with limited offensive snaps over his career, what he can do is relatively unknown.

The player that I expect to be a breakout player in this group is the redshirt freshman Tyler Moore. Due to him redshirting in his first season, there is not a lot of information out there on his progression.

The former No. 6 recruit in the state of Iowa comes into the season with a big role to fill.

– Andrew Harrington

What will the secondary personnel look like?

Like most positions for the Cyclones, the secondary will undergo some changes this season. We’ll get our first look at who that could be this spring.

Greg Eisworth is headed onto his next chapter. He was a long-time stalwart in the secondary, and Iowa State will miss him.

Isheem Young and Kym-Mani King transferred out of the program before the Cheez-It Bowl, and they’ll also be hard to replace.

But the Cyclones got a bit of a glimpse into life without the latter two players against Clemson, and things were far from doom and gloom.

As for the big veteran names returning, it starts and ends with Anthony Johnson Jr. who comes back for a fifth year.

Johnson has been playing cornerback, but in Iowa State’s spring guide the Cyclones say he’ll get ‘the opportunity to switch to safety during spring drills.’

The two big names to watch are Beau Freyler and Craig McDonald.

Both players saw more playing time at the end of the season, and certainly held their own. Freyler got his first start in the Cheez-It Bowl in place of Isheem Young and registered 15 tackles. 

The other two players to keep an eye on are Myles Purchase, who also was elevated to a starter in Orlando, and T.J. Tampa, who saw lots of playing time at safety but might be expected to take on more of a leadership role with Eisworth not returning.

Mason Chambers, Malik Verdon and Jordyn Morgan will fill out the safety depth chart.

– James Powell

With the depth we have at DT, any chance we could see some four-man fronts this fall?

This is an interesting question. After all, this is a time for change of Iowa State football.

But if I had to offer an answer, I’d say no — at least not at the level I think this question is asking.

Jon Heacock’s 3-3-5 defense has taken over college football over the last three years. And it’s clearly working.

The Cyclones averaged 2.54 sacks per game last season, good for 45th in Division I. To be more specific to the Big 12, Iowa State’s defense has ranked in the top-three in total defense in the Big 12 in four of the last five seasons.

Iowa State’s 3-3-5 (three pass rushers, three linebackers, five defensive backs) scheme is tried and true, and I don’t see Heacock deviating from it.

Certainly, Iowa State’s defensive line has a lot of promise this season. Will McDonald returning at defensive end is huge for this year’s team. He’s the best pass rusher in the Big 12 when he steps on the field.

Sophomore J.R. Singleton and senior Isaiah Lee will have the nose guard position on lockdown as veterans. Howard Brown is coming off a redshirt and could be in line for some playing time. Blake Peterson could play opposite McDonald at defensive end.

Eyioma Uwazurike and Zach Petersen leaving the program hurts the defensive line, but I don’t think the position group will fall off. Maybe I’m wrong, and Iowa State views this group as flexible and too good to leave some off the field.

But Iowa State likes the 3-3-5 for the matchups it creates for rushers and linebackers.

Linebackers blitz frequently for this defense and can act as a fourth man in the box at times. In other games, Iowa State has shown a five or six-man front, only to pull back two or three into coverage on the snap.

I could see more of those specific packages being used and turned into true four-man pass rush plays every now and then.

– Matt Belinson

What’s the situation with the running back room?

Let’s start with the elephant in the room.

Breece Hall might hear his name called in round one of the NFL Draft this spring, and if he falls to day two, it’ll be a steal for any team.

Losing him is a big, big loss. And in my opinion, it will result in much less reliance on the running game.

As for who’s left, Jirehl Brock is expected to take the lion’s share of carries that Hall got the last two seasons. This past season, Brock had 37 rushing attempts for 174 yards and one touchdown, which came against TCU.

When Hall sat out of the Cheez-It Bowl, Brock started and had 14 carries for 42 yards. That right there may give a good indication as to how he might be used in the 2022 campaign. Hall had more than 14 carries in every game the past two seasons.

Part of that decrease for Brock certainly came as a result of his lack of familiarity with being the true bell cow for the Cyclones, but as a whole, Brock may see a lot more screen passes and leak-out plays in the passing game than Hall.

As for the rest of the running back room, the other two players I expect to see get carries are Deon Silas and Eli Sanders.

Silas burned his red-shirt while Sanders is currently classified as a redshirt freshman, so if I had to create the depth chart, it may go Brock, Silas and then Sanders as the No. 3 back.

It’s very possible we see more of a split in carries between Silas and Brock, but I think that all depends on how Matt Campbell and Tom Manning feel Brock could handle shouldering the load in the backfield.

– James Powell