For head coach Gene Chizik, the rebuilding process at Iowa State looks like it may take a long, long time. In 2007, the Cyclones were supposed to have a solid offense behind quarterback Bret Meyer and receiver Todd Blythe but ended up 3-9 after getting drummed for most of the season.
But Iowa State started to turn things around late after giving Missouri a good effort on the road and winning two straight games against Kansas State and Colorado before coming back down to earth with a 45-7 loss to Kansas to end the season.
If Iowa State could build off that momentum, they could be a team in 2008 capable of a few head-scratching upsets. The problem, however, is how do they deal with the loss of Meyer and Blythe and how much improved could the defensive front seven be this season. With Chizik's background on defense, he's going to have to get to work in a hurry.
Meyer set all sorts of records as quarterback at Iowa State while Blythe set the career receptions mark, which makes the 2007 offensive output in Ames so weird. Despite Meyer and Blythe playing their senior seasons, the Cyclones were dead last in offensive production in the Big 12 conference and finished No. 102 in total offense last season.
Now ISU will be looking for a new quarterback and it will have a choice from a number of young signal callers, but the two at the top will most likely be sophomores Austen Arnaud and Phillip Bates. Arnaud, the hometown hero from Ames saw action in six games backing up Meyer last season, completing 20 of 37 passes for 267 yards with one interception. Arnaud, however, isn't going to get the job easily as Bates will challenge him throughout August camp with the winner being truly up in the air.
Despite losing Blythe, the Cyclones have a stable of receiver returning in 2008. Senior R.J. Sumrall actually had more catches than Blythe in 2007, 54 compared to Blythe's 52 for 434 yards. He'll be the No. 1 target most likely with junior Marquis Hamilton lining up on the other side after catching 45 passes for 534 yards and one touchdown last season. Senior Euseph Messiah will also get into the mix, but it'll be true freshman Sedrick Johnson that will most likely be the darkhorse in the receiving corps. The Cyclones are looking at the highly athletic receiver to come in right away and make an impact.
Iowa State used a running back by committee approach in 2007, but in 2008 it appears that sophomore Alexander Robinson will be the main man in the backfield. Robinson started four games in 2007 while playing in 11 and carried the ball 118 times for 465 yards and nine touchdowns. Senior Jason Scales started four games and played in nine in 2007, running to a total of 333 yards and three touchdowns on 99 carries. He will be the first one off the bench to spell Robinson in the run game.
The strength of the Cyclone offense is on the offensive line where Iowa State returns four starters from a revamped line in 2007 that allowed just 17 sacks compared to 38 in 2006. Senior left tackle Doug Dedrick, senior center Brandon Johnson and junior left guard Reggie Stephens all return to the starting lineup. Jennings, however, is going to have to survive a challenge from junior Mike Knapp at center. Sophomore Ben Lamaak is back at right tackle and senior Joe Blaes looks to be taking over at right guard.
Redshirt freshman Kelechi Osemele, junior college transfer Hayworth Hicks and true freshman Scott Haughton, who enrolled prior to the spring, could push for playing time this fall as well.
Overall, ISU is looking to find replacements for two of the most prolific players in the school's history. A lot of things will have to go right in order for the Cyclones to have an offense that can improve on their dismal numbers from last season.
Iowa State is chalk full of seniors up and down the defensive depth chart, and if the Cyclones want a better outcome this season than in 2007 they'll need the defense to led the way as the offense tries to find an identity early in the season.
On the defensive line, the Cyclones are returning senior Kurtis Taylor and junior Rashawn Parker. Senior Nick Frere and junior Christopher Lyle are experienced backups at end. Taylor led the Cyclones in sacks in 2007 with 6.5 while Parker had two with 5.5 tackles for loss.
Inside, the Cyclones have to replace two starter and juniors Bailey Johnson and Nate Frere are the early favorites. Frere played in 12 games and contributed 11 tackles while Johnson had nine tackles in 11 games. Depth is an issue at tackle as well with senior Chris Weir backing up Johnson and redshirt freshman Jerrod Black in the mix at nose tackle behind Frere.
Iowa State lost both of its leading tacklers from 2007 in Alvin Bowen and Jon Banks from the linebacking corps. Middle linebacker Jesse Smith, however, returns for his junior season after finishing third on the team in tackles in 2007 with 79. Originally a walk-on, Smith will be looked at to lead the defensive front seven in 2008.
Senior Michael Bibbs figures to take over on the strongside while senior Josh Raven won the job on the weakside in the spring. Bibbs had 19 tackles in 10 games as a junior while Raven had 21 tackles in 10 games.
The strongest area of Iowa State's defense is in the secondary where all four starters return from a pass defense that ranked No. 91 in the nation in 2007 by allowing 254.25 yards per game through the air. Senior cornerback Chris Singleton led the Cyclones with four interceptions last season and added two pass breakups and 52 tackles. Opposite him is senior Allen Bell who produced 54 tackles and one interception a year ago. Seniors Chris Brown and James Smith return at safety. Smith was tied for third on the team in 2007 in tackles with 79 while Brown had 43.
Chizik, who was a defensive mastermind at Texas before taking the job in Ames will be under pressure to improve in his second season at Iowa State, and it's a certainty that Iowa State will have to first improve on defense to see its record improve in 2008. With an offense under reconstruction, the defense must improve greatly this season.
WHEN FACING A&M
The Cyclones get A&M in Ames, but the question that must be answered by this point in the season is about the offense. Will Iowa State be settled into whoever is starting at quarterback? Will other playmakers emerge? If the Cyclones have answered these questions then this game could be interesting with the Aggies being full of inexperienced youth as well.
But A&M has much more talent than Iowa State and that should play a large factor in this game. Defensively, Iowa State doesn't have the playmakers to stop A&M ground attack or limit the aerial game. Iowa State is in a rebuilding process, and although the Cyclones made strides at the end of last season it doesn't mean that they are going to plow through the Big 12.
A&M, however, has its own question marks and a lot of those will be answered by this point of the season. If the Aggies are playing well at this point in the season and are relatively injury-free, then A&M should run away with this game.
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