As Year Six begins under Paul Rhoads, Iowa State begins spring practice earlier than ever.
Still, it feels like a long time coming. It's been a whirl of an offseason. The tragic, sudden death of defensive ends coach Curtis Bray rightly overshadowing the coaching carousel — six new hires altogether, not including the promotion of Todd Sturdy from wide receivers coach to quarterbacks.
Compound that with Iowa State's 3-9 season and it's no wonder the Cyclones will eagerly take the field Monday for the first of two helmets-only practices this week.
"We decided this actually last fall that we wanted to get to football sooner," Rhoads said Monday. "We wanted to get out on the field with a football and get started on spring practice sooner and that's exactly what we're gonna get done this week."
Let's review some of the spring's biggest storylines.
Sam Richardson remains the clubhouse leader to open the season Aug. 30 against North Dakota State as the starting quarterback in Mark Mangino's new offense, but sophomore Grant Rohach gets first crack after stringing together consecutive wins to close last season.
Redshirt freshman Joel Lanning, whose arm strength has caught the eye of ISU's coaches, enters camp as third string. Trevor Hodge, also a redshirt freshman, is No. 4.
Rhoads said Mangino's offense will be without a huddle and will require the quarterback to make audibles and checks at the line of scrimmage. Digesting Mangino's playbook and concepts — which for now are being kept close to the vest — is priority No. 1 for Rohach and Richardson this spring, but Rhoads would like the two to work on the following, respectively.
Rohach: Decision making. As a redshirt freshman, Rohach looked lost at times, especially at the onset of his playing time, oddly refusing to throw the ball away and instead take losses for large chunks of yards. That improved as time wore on (as it should). Now the coaches need to see Rohach work through his progressions while in the pocket — quickly, but not hurriedly — and get the ball where it needs to go, rather than force it to option No. 1.
Richardson: Arm strength and accuracy on long passes. Rhoads continues to insinuate Richardson was more hurt than anyone let on last season, but at one point Richardson was marked up on ISU's injury report for four reasons. The ankle and right thumb were chief concerns but ultimately it was a hit to the neck that knocked Richardson out of ISU's Oct. 26 game against Oklahoma State and led way for Rohach. The thumb and the ankle each hampered Richardson's ability to confidently set his feet and step into long passes, which he struggled to place, especially down the sideline. Richardson's speed and his experience (10 starts) make him an intriguing option. If the arm strength and touch improve, he should be the runaway winner of the QB derby.
Injuries Cloud Defensive Depth Chart
Take a look at this:
Now forget about it. When the Cyclones release the depth chart for their season opener, it should look markedly different.
Rodney Coe, David Irving and Luke Knott, all three out for most of the spring with injuries, are missing. Strongside linebacker Jared Brackens is serving a two-practice suspension. Gabe Luna, Jordan Harris and Devron Moore, JUCO transfers, need time to assimilate. Incoming JUCOs like Dale Pierson, Qujuan Floyd and Trent Taylor should appear on the two-deep after August's camp.
So, while the spring will be important to get young guys like Mitchell Meyers, Pierre Aka, Drake Ferch, Kane Seeley, Alton Meeks, T.J. Mutcherson and Kamari Cotton-Moya snaps, they don't project as starters in 2014, not yet.
Rhoads loves the leap Seeley, a redshirt sophomore, made from Year 1 to Year 2 and now needs to see the 6-foot-1 player improve on "pulling the trigger," which means Seeley deftly recognizes plays but the Cyclones want him to get better at finishing them off — reading the hole, yes, and then storming through it to make the stop.
Alton Meeks, a quarterback in high school, was actually heading to the defensive ends room after bulking up so much (6-foot-2, 249) but the coaches were pleasantly surprised by his speed and agility and are excited to see what he can do at 'Mike backer.
There won't be any more left- and right-cornerback. Instead, the Cyclones will have a boundary and a field guy, dictated by the hash marks. At first blush, Sam E. Richardson might be a "field" type, given his tackling ability.
I've said this before but the coaches were ready to play Kamari Cotton-Moya last year as a true freshman but he tore his Achilles.
Note: I need to run to Ames for Fred Hoiberg and then football practice, but in case you missed it: Justin Madison (ACL) and Tad Ecby will sit out most of the spring with injuries.
And here's the offensive depth chart:
Rhoads said Mangino's offense will be without a huddle and will require the quarterback to make audibles and checks at the line of scrimmage. Digesting Mangino's playbook and concepts — which for now are being kept close to the vest — is priority No. 1 for Rohach and Richardson