AMES, Iowa — Iowa State’s restructured defense will be considered a liability until it can prove otherwise.
The Cyclones will look to counter a defense in flux with what could be one of the best offenses in school history.
Iowa State might finally be built to hang in a league where even teams with strong defenses often find themselves in high-scoring shootouts. The Cyclones have arguably the deepest group of wide receivers in the Big 12, a pair of talented backs in David Montgomery and Mike Warren, and a quarterback, Jacob Park, who coming off his first full offseason in the program.
Iowa State (3-9 in 2016) opens its second season under coach Matt Campbell on Saturday against Northern Iowa.
“Pressure is only when you fail to lay a great foundation of what you are and what you’re about,” Campbell said Monday.
The Cyclones set new marks in 2016 for points (29.4) and yards (439.8) per conference game.
Iowa State has enough skill position players to potentially blow past those numbers this fall — starting with one of its most talented pass-catching groups in recent memory.
Senior Allen Lazard caught 69 passes for 1,018 yards in 2016. Lazard also broke the school record with six games of at least 100 yards receiving, and he averaged seven catches for 114 yards a game over his last five.
“When you watched him at his best, he’s really special. He’s got the ability to make all the catches. He’s got the ability to be that guy on third down, to make the first down,” Campbell said of Lazard.
In year’s past, the rare Cyclones as dangerous as Lazard would typically face constant double teams. But this season, Iowa State has much more than just one option outside.
Deshaunte Jones caught 37 passes as a freshman last season, and his six TDs were fourth-best nationally among newcomers. Trever Ryen also caught 37 passes and nearly led the Big 12 in punt return average, and former Temple transfer Matt Eaton was among the nation’s top junior college receivers in 2016.
Hakeem Butler caught a pair of touchdown passes as a true freshman in 2016, and freshman Chase Allen was considered among the nation’s top tight end prospects before a car accident forced him to redshirt a year ago.
The hope for Iowa State is that those playmakers will open us its running game, and one of the more interesting things to watch on Saturday will be how the Cyclones use Montgomery and Warren.
Montgomery emerged as the No. 1 back late last season while Warren fought through a high ankle sprain, and Montgomery was listed as the starter on a depth chart released Monday.
But Warren will likely get more carries than a typical backup — especially with Kene Nwangwu out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Iowa State is holding out hope that it won’t have to use a medical redshirt for Nwangwu, who was second in the Big 12 in kickoff returns as a freshman.
Park’s impressive play down the stretch in 2016 convinced former starter Joel Lanning to give linebacker a shot. But Lanning might not be done at quarterback, as Campbell alluded to on Monday.
“Everyone wants to know, are we going to play Joel Lanning on both sides of the ball? My answer is we’ll see,” Campbell said.