by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

In three seasons at Iowa State, highly-respected coach Paul Rhoads is 18-20. But he has made the Cyclone program consistently competitive, taken ISU to two bowl games, and has scored at least one notable upset each season. In 2009, the Cyclones (a 20-point underdog using backup QB Jerome Tiller and having benefit of eight Husker turnovers!) won at Nebraska for the first time since 1977. In 2010, Iowa State (+21) won at Texas for the first time in Cyclone history. In 2011, ISU, as a 6 ½-point underdog, first beat Iowa, and later in the season, as a 27-point dog, edged No. 2 Oklahoma State, both victories in overtime. Truly, it can be said that Rhodes has led the Cyclones to over-achieve.

Born just ten minutes from Jack Trice Stadium, the native Iowan is in the second year of a ten-year contract. And recent history has proven to rivals that he should not be underestimated. The same would seem to be the case again in 2012. While ISU doesn’t have the star power of many other teams in the Big 12, it is clear upon closer inspection that Rhoads has elevated the Iowa State program on many dimensions.

For example, ISU has impressive, newly-built football training facilities coming on line. Rhoads—a former assistant at big-time programs such as Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Auburn—has improved the Cyclones’ recruiting in terms of quality, quantity, and national breadth. And he has instilled an air of competence and confidence among his players that is much needed in their battles vs. Big 12 “big boys” such as Texas, Oklahoma, and formerly Nebraska.

This year’s ISU team—in year four of the Rhoads program—is more talented and deeper overall, even though its flaws/question marks are quite obvious. First of all, Rhoads has not decided on a No. 1 QB going into August camp, with soph Jared Barnett (a dual threat with six starts last season, 50% passing, 6 TDs, 6 ints.; 427 YR) still battling sr. passer Steele Jantz (right; 53.3%, 10 TDs, 11 ints.; three fourth-quarter comebacks). 6-2 redshirt frosh Sam Richardson might also get a look. While Rhoads is being criticized in some quarters for not having a clear-cut No. 1, he probably deserves credit for candor. He knows both of his top QBs need more consistency, especially for a team that was 90th in scoring (22.7 ppg) last season and was -11 in turnover margin, with 35 giveaways. So competition will continue. But both QBs have shown winning ability—Barnett with his mobility, and Jantz with his aerials. Both are likely to be better this year than last.

And that should set up the rest of the offense, as ISU is deep at RB and getting deeper at receiver. In the backfield, 5-8 jr. mighty mite James White (743 YR in 2011) and 6-1, 245 jr. power guy Jeff Woody (381 YR) provide a quality complementary pair. Plus, Rhoads says redshirt frosh RB DeVondrick Nealy and Rob Standard stood out in spring and should fight for carries. Jr. Shontrelle Johnson, who started the first four games last season, remained on the shelf in spring after last year’s neck injury. Sr. WR Josh Lenz (39 recs. LY) emerged as a reliable go-to target last season, while sr. Aaron Horne nabbed 38 aerials. Converted 6-3 QB Jerome Tiller showed great promise as a taller target in spring. Plus three highly-regarded true frosh WRs will add their speed in August. Three of five starters return on the OL, a platoon that is now peopled by more size and raw ability than in recent years.

On defense, the strength is the dynamic LBing duo of A.J. Klein (116 Ts) & Jake Knott (115), with Klein being named the league’s co-Defensive Player of the Year last season. Knott had offseason shoulder surgery, but should be good to go. Unfortunately, that pair is often called upon to do too much, as the Cyclones collected only 17sacks LY (106th in the nation). With only one starter returning in his front four, Rhoads is hoping that his improved recruiting and overall depth will pay off. 6-4 soph juco Cory Morrisey showed the ability to pass-rush at the JC level, while Rhoads hopes promising 6-7 soph holdover DE David Irving proves to he a fast developer.

The secondary has two stars in 6-1 sr. S Jacques Washington (90 tackles LY) and diminutive, aggressive 5-7 Jeremy Reeves (70 Ts), who somehow more than holds his own on the corner. At the other two secondary spots, Rhoads now has tested veterans to move into the starting lineup. As a long-time defensive coordinator, it would be a surprise if Rhoads doesn’t come up with a very competitive unit for 2012.

Returning punter Kirby Van Der Kamp is in his third season, but the projected kicker is a true freshman (Cole Netten). While that is usually more than a little bit risky, it is not so much for ISU, as the Cyclones converted only 12 of 20 FG tries in 2011.

Summary...Did Iowa “favorite son” Paul Rhoads (who reportedly bypassed a chance to return to former employer Pitt as its new HC in the offseason) open the door for a possible change of scenery down the road when he said last December, “I’m excited about what we’ve done, and I’m even more excited about where we can take this. But that doesn’t mean that this is the last and only head-coaching job for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.” But right now, the intense and thorough Rhoads is committed to ISU, where he has said, “I’d like to have my name attached to things that have never been done in the history of Iowa State football.” Rhoads will likely engineer another upset or two this season. But his fiery and scrappy Cyclones have managed only three conference wins in each of his three seasons. Plus, this year’s Big 12 road schedule (TCU, Oklahoma State, and Texas, before Kansas on Nov. 17) is challenging, to say the least. ISU is likely land another minor bowl bid this season. But the Cyclones aren’t likely to move up the bowl food chain without getting improved QB play.

Note that fired-up ISU had covered six straight visits to instate rival Iowa until a 28-0 blanking in 2010.


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