On Tuesday, Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell stepped up to the podium and talked for more than 40 minutes about his team. He covered topics ranging from the offensive line to social media to building the 105-man fall camp roster.
Here are the key notes from Campbell’s first media day at Iowa State.
*** Expectations for Iowa State football have skyrocketed since Campbell took over last December. The staff’s meteoric rise on the recruiting trail hasn’t done anything to slow that down.
So, what are Campbell and the staff doing to try and keep up with the expectations?
“The fans, they should be excited and I hope they’re excited. Our job is to continue the momentum of excitement,” Campbell said. “I think it’s hard for us as a coaching staff to honestly sit here today and say, ‘Here’s where this team is. This is what we’re capable of doing,’ because I don’t know if we even know yet. You know, we’ve just been through eight months of starting to build the culture and what I told the kids on our first night meeting here is my expectations are really simple for this team. Can we get better every day? Can this team and our players reach their full potential? Obviously, what that is and what that looks like, I don’t know if I know that and can put a number on that yet, but my challenge is can we reach our full potential and that’s individually and then collectively as a football team.”
*** A lack of depth along the offensive line is clearly one of the biggest issues for the Cyclones heading into fall camp and nobody knows that better than Campbell. A lack of proven players has caused the coaching staff to put together what some might consider a patchwork starting group on the first depth chart.
That said, Campbell feels like the group is improving.
“This group has gotten stronger, they’ve gotten bigger,” Campbell said. “We’ve added some pieces that I think help this group be better football players, but until we go out, until we play, until the lights go on and they’re in situations where they have to perform and perform with great consistency. That’s going to continue to be a concern of mine until we can prove we can do that with a consistent effort.”
Perhaps the most heated battle along the offensive line comes at center where three guys are jostling for the starting spot. Redshirt freshman Julian Good-Jones was on top of the depth chart heading into the summer, but graduate transfer Brian Bobek and redshirt freshman Bryce Meeker aren’t far behind.
“It is a really, really heated battle and it’s a really good battle, and it’s a good problem for us,” Campbell said. “One of the great things for us is that Bryce Meeker’s position flexibility is he can both guards spots and play center. Julian Good-Jones can play both tackles and he can play center, and Brian (Bobek) probably could play guard if we had to, but you know, the reality of it is it’s a good problem for us to have. It’s a situation for us that I feel really confident in and that position. Way more confident than I did coming out of spring practice to where we are right now. A lot of credit there goes to the kids and what they’ve been able to do. Obviously, us being able to pickup Brian this summer has been a huge addition that’s allowed us to give us some flexibility in what we can do and who we are on the offensive line.”
*** Some people raised their eyebrows when they saw that redshirt senior Kane Seeley sat atop the depth chart at mike linebacker heading into fall camp but according to Campbell, there’s no doubt he was the top guy out of the spring.
“Kane Seeley won the starting linebacker job coming out of spring practice,” Campbell said. “I think that was evident amongst our staff and that’s a credit to Kane Seeley on work ethic, toughness, approach to the game of football. You know, linebacker’s a lot like the quarterback position. Those guys have to be, number one, in today’s world of football, they’ve got to be great communicators. You’ve got to have the ability to adjust the defense and be able to communicate what’s going on both to the d-line and to the secondary. Number two, you’ve got to be tough and I think we all know from Kane’s years in high school and wrestling and what he’s done here in terms of production on special teams and defensively, you’d say he’s tough. Then number three, you’ve got to have the ability to do it and Kane can certainly do it, so Kane brings a lot of intangibles to the table in terms of mike linebacker play.”
Even with Seeley firmly in the top spot, there are still a couple different guys pushing to find their way onto the field this year.
“Brian Mills is a guy that’s had a really, really good fall for us, has made really good strides in terms of our system, getting bigger, getting stronger, tested out phenomenally in the summer program so he’s making great push right now at the mike linebacker spot as well,” Campbell said. “Tymar Sutton, a true freshman, is a guy that’s making some great push right there as well so we’re excited to see his progress. So really competitive spot for us and we feel confident in the mike linebacker spot right now with what we’ve got and who we’ve got leading those areas.”
*** Campbell declared the place kicking job an open competition during the spring, but it still might be Cole Netten’s job to lose. Even despite a strong spring from redshirt sophomore Chris Francis and the arrival of walk-on true freshman Eric Sylvester.
“I’ve got really good faith that Cole’s got great ability, but again at that spot it’s all about confidence and it’s all about consistency,” Campbell said. “I think Cole’s got to show that all throughout fall camp just like he did during spring practice so he can lock that role in. I think that’s across the board, that’s not just Cole Netten, that’s every position we that have right now, because all of us coaches, we all, we know is what we’ve seen the last seven months and I promise our entire football that we weren’t going to judge anything that went before this. We want to see what’s going on here and now. We’re smart enough to know what videotape looked like from year’s past and videotape evidence but also whats happened the last seven months. Chris Francis deserves the right to be able to, he had a great spring game had a great spring. Eric’s the young freshman that’s coming in and competition right now. I definitely say Cole’s competing but he’s the lead dog in the house in terms of a guy that has video tape evidence of having great success.”
*** Apparently, the true freshmen running backs, Kene Nwangwu and David Montgomery, are really, really good.
“I’m prepared to say this, the one thing that I leave five practice with already, is we’re really good at running back and we’re really lucky that we recruiting recruiting really well this year, because those two young freshman are as talented as any two young freshmen kids that we maybe have had the ability to recruit,” Campbell said. “I’m really excited about what they’ve shown and flashed in five days of practice. They both have elite skill. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re elite players yet, but they have elite skill. So they’ve really cushioned what our expectation and they’ve allowed us to sleep a little bit at night as what they’ve performed like in terms of early in fall camp and what they’re ability to run is.”
Add in the other two guys returning behind Mike Warren, and all of a sudden Campbell feels pretty good about the running back position.
“Mitchell Harger’s the starting point. Mitchell’s coming off surgery so we’ve been really smart with Mitchell in terms of he’s been full-go, he’s had practice but how much do we force feed him which has been good for these young guys to get quality reps, but I think we all know what Mitchell can do for us. He’s a guy that’s a great pass protector, he’s got great hands out of the backfield, he’s a really good runner in terms of between the tackle box,” Campbell said. “Sheldon Croney has been a really good story for us early on in camp. He’s gotten better every day and I think we almost have to treat Sheldon like a true freshman because he didn’t do anything for nine months and now all of a sudden has come back. You’ve kind of seen him kick the rust off a little bit. He looks a lot better, lost almost 12 pounds in the offseason. Got his body fat down from maybe 18 percent to nine percent. He changed who he is and what he looks like and, again, I think if you watch his high school film, he had great ability. I think we feel a lot better about that position today than maybe what we felt like leaving spring practice.”
*** Lastly, the battle for the backup quarterback spot has been just as heated as any battle for a starting spot.
“I’ll be honest with you, we wouldn’t have brought Zeb (Noland) in so early in his high school career if I didn’t want him to compete to play,” Campbell said. “I also said this day one, I don’t care if you’re a freshman or a senior the best player’s going to play. To me, that is that’s honest. Any team with 18 to 22 year old kids, if you’re not playing the best players as a coach then that’s an issue. They want to know, number one, am I the best and if I’m not the best, it’s my job, or the coaching staff’s job, to tell them what they’re not doing well or what they have to do to become the best to get themselves no the field. There’s no difference at quarterback even though in a perfect world as you look at it you say, ‘I’d love to redshirt Zeb Noland.’ You know, Zeb’s a competitor and as you get to know Zeb, might be one of the best competitors I’ve ever been been around in terms of going out and competition day in and day out. Zeb’s had a really good start to camp. He has a knowingness in being through process before at the quarterback position, those 15 spring practices that you have, those are like the beginning phase of football. You’re just learning and trying to feel yourself out. Now, all of a sudden, he’s like a new person come this fall camp. He’s really had a good start to camp. Jacob (Park), you know, Jacob was great to have Jacob here all summer. Jacob was ill for the first couple days of practice so he’s just kind of getting out there, was his second day of practice yesterday. But It’s going to be really fun to watch that competition, especially as we get into this week, which will be some real situational football, some scrimmaging, really watch these guys perform under pressure.”