AMES - The Iowa State football team has hung its hat on defense during the initial seasons of the Paul Rhoads era.
If the Cyclones are planning to return to a bowl game for the third consecutive season, the offense will have to make more of an impact in a Big 12 Conference loaded with playmakers.
"Absolutely there is a sense that we have to do more," said center Tom Farniok, who will be a third-year starter this fall. "We want to put more points on the board and there is more of a desire this year to do so.
T-R PHOTO BY TYLER STRAND
Iowa State’s deep stable of running backs line up for a picture inside Jack Trice Stadium at the team’s media day Sunday. From left: Jeff Woody, Rob Standard, Aaron Wimberly, Shontrelle Johnson, DeVondrick Nealy and James White will vie for carries in the Cyclones’ revamped rushing attack which ranked ninth in the Big 12 last year at 150.1 yards per game.
"We are a lot more physical. And we seem to be much more of a downhill running team and I really like that."
Leading the way in terms of the downhill running will be a host of tailbacks who are trying to find roles and hoping to get a chance to see snaps with the ball in their hands.
Back from last year's 6-7 squad that ended the season with a loss to Tulsa in the Liberty Bowl will be James White, Shontrelle Johnson and Jeff Woody, but the position also welcomes in junior college transfer Aaron Wimberly as well as perhaps a larger role from sophomore DeVondrick Nealy.
White and Johnson finished with 505 and 504 rushing yards last year, respectively. Woody can play either tailback, fullback or tight end and Wimberly is regarded as one of the fastest players on the team.
The key for the entire group is finding roles that put the offense in the best position to succeed.
"I am not concerned with their happiness as far as carries," said Rhoads. "I am concerned with figuring out their roles and having them understand the roles and make sure they go out there and get it done."
The Cyclones scored just 24.5 points per game last year despite averaging more than 364 yards per game. The third-down conversion percentage could also be better as the Cyclones turned 38 percent of their third-down attempts into first downs.
"The expectations are definitely there. We have got to put up points this year," ISU quarterback Sam Richardson said. "The fact that we are young is not an excuse. We will be out there making plays for sure."
That is where the talented set of tailbacks come into play.
The Cyclones will be young at wide receiver after graduating their top three producers from last season. But White, Johnson and Woody bring tons of game experience and Wimberly led Iowa Western Community College to another national championship last fall.
"We know what we are capable of, and we know that everyone else doesn't think we are capable of much," said Woody, who said he will likely play some tight end this season. "The differing of opinions is something that has stoked the motivation that we have right now."
While the offense seems to be full of returning starters, the defense may take a step back after losing all-Big 12 linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, all-league defensive end Jake McDonough and all-league defensive back Durrell Givens.
The Cyclones do bring back safeties Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield and linebacker Jeremiah George. Washington had 90 tackles and three interceptions last season, while George added 87 tackles.
"We have the least amount of starters returning in the Big 12 and that is showing in practice, especially on defense," said Rhoads. "I am glad I have a defensive coordinator that has 50-plus years of experience. I am confident that we will work around that and get the guys ready to go."
Helping the defense will be punter Kirby Van Der Kamp, a preseason All-American and returning first-team all-Big 12 selection.
"I would like to see Kirby punt less," said Rhoads, who added that the kicking job is wide open between Edwin Arceo and Cole Netten. "Kirby though is a weapon without a doubt. He's the best punter in college football and deserves to be on the Ray Guy (watch) list."
Van Der Kamp, one of ISU's six captains, has averaged nearly 43 yards per punt in his career and has pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line 72 times, including 29 last year.
"He makes offensive coordinators really hate him," said Woody. "If you get the ball inside the 10-yard line, the opposing teams scores only like 1-2 percent of the time. Kirby did that 29 times last year. And that is a huge weapon when you can play the percentages like that."
The schedule once again didn't do Iowa State any favors as the Cyclones have road trips to Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas State and West Virginia included in the Big 12 slate. Tulsa is the other road game and ISU also hosts nationally ranked Texas, TCU and Oklahoma State as well as Northern Iowa, Iowa and Kansas.
But Rhoads said the players understand the situation and welcome the challenge of competing in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
"We are excited to be ranked in the top 10 in terms of strength of schedule for the fourth straight season," said Rhoads. "It is a challenge that our kids are very aware of and excited about it as they approach every single day of practice."
Not only is the schedule challenging from a competition standpoint, it also will be tricky from a schedule routine standpoint. Iowa State opens the season Aug. 31 against Northern Iowa but then waits a full two weeks before hosting the Hawkeyes at Jack Trice Stadium on Sept. 14.
Then the Cyclones don't play their third game until Sept. 26 when they head to Tulsa to face the Golden Hurricane in a rematch of the 2012 season opener and the 2012 bowl game.
"It just means we have to be ready to go," Woody said. "It is a half physical warm up. It kind of allows us to get ramped up for the season. You won't get complacent about the routine because there is no routine for the most part during that first stretch of games."