ISU football team’s evolving personality excites coaches


Junior linebacker Jordan Harris celebrates after winning the Cy-Hawk Series at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Sept. 13. Harris is a part of a change in the ISU defense that sees eight junior college transfers. 

Max Dible

ISU offensive coordinator Mark Mangino said he was lied to by his team last season. Yet it was a deception he couldn’t recognize clearly until the 2015 spring practices began.

“This football team here has genuine enthusiasm and a real hunger. I think last year … a few guys fooled me,” Mangino said. “They jumped up and down and cheered and everything in practice, and then when we got our backs pinned up against the wall, their enthusiasm left.”

Of course, Mangino wasn’t speaking about every player from last year’s ISU football team, as many of them are part of what all the coaches agree is a group poised for a resurgent performance after the program has amassed only five victories during the course of the previous two years.

“I’m not saying every guy last year was like that, no, but the culture of this team is different from last year,” Mangino said. “Does that translate into more wins? Let’s hope so.”

One player at a particularly important position may be able to add a healthy boost to Mangino’s hopes, even though he plays on the opposite side of the football. Middle linebacker Jordan Harris, a redshirt junior who sat out last season after transferring from Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi, will step into a leading role for the Cyclones in the fall.

ISU defensive coordinator Wally Burnham was hopeful that Harris would be ready to play immediately last season, but the NJCAA second-team All-American was yet unprepared to assume the heightened responsibilities of the crucial and tactical position. Burnham said all that has changed, adding that if the season began today, Harris would be the starting signal caller for his defense.

“It was disappointing [to redshirt Harris]. We thought he’d be ready, but now in hindsight, I’m glad it turned out that way because he’s ready now,” Burnham said. “He had to make an adjustment mentally. … He’s improved in all his areas: pass coverage, run, hitting the right run gaps, all those kind of things.”

Burnham said the past few weeks have been the backdrop to the linebacker’s transformation into the player Iowa State thought he would be when the team first started recruiting him.

ISU head coach Paul Rhoads said the physical aspects of the game were never the issue, but as a middle linebacker, Harris will be responsible for setting the defense and communicating with 10 teammates on a play-by-play basis. It is a responsibility the ISU staff now feels comfortable placing in Harris’ hands.

Harris’ improvement and elevated comfort level serve as a microcosm for what the coaching staff has noticed about the 2015-16 team from the start of spring practices.

“We’ve made comments several times as a staff that this group likes to practice,” Rhoads said. “Everybody likes to play — this group likes to practice, too. And when you bring that kind of energy to the practice field, you’re generally going to improve and you’re going to be coachable because you want to be out there and you want to be playing.”

Burnham added that last year’s staff had to coach effort, but this year, it will be able to focus its primary efforts elsewhere, which should have a ripple effect.

“We’ve still got a piece to go,” Burnham said. “Our guys might be going the wrong way, but they’re going full speed, and so to me, that’s big.”