Nov 23, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones tight end Charlie Kolar (88) enters the stadium before the game with the Kansas Jayhawks at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell doesn’t always like to single out the youngest players who have impressed him in spring camp.
Sometimes it’s too soon.
Sometimes he doesn’t want to leave anyone out.
He didn’t mind offering up several names this time, perhaps because seemingly all the Cyclones’ newcomers populate that list.
“When you talk about the incoming freshman class — and then throw in (graduate transfer kicker) Andrew Mevis as a newcomer, as well — (it) has been nothing short of exceptional,” Campbell said last week. “I give a lot of credit to our senior leadership and to some of our veteran players because that group was training with that group since January, so I think they really helped accelerate their confidence and their work ethic, over the month of February, March and April.”
That’s by design. Campbell has stressed repeatedly in recent years that ISU is progressing toward a fully player-led program and that metamorphosis continues to unfold — and not just on the field or in the classroom. Second-year director of strength and conditioning Dave Andrews and his staff have made that mentoring chain the primary focus in the weight room and at the training table, as well.
“It’s simple,” Andrews said today in a conference call with the media. “I tell the kids all of the time they don’t work for me and they don’t work for us. … Simply understand that anytime when you step in the room, anybody that has tenure, that is a really strong cultural leader, those guys carry as much weight or more weight than any coach. I think establishing the consistency of what you’re asking them to do with the standards is huge. What is it and what are we holding you accountable for? And it is player-led. And I would say that’s been a huge difference from my perspective. Seeing that, being involved in that, and the way coach Campbell likes to lead that, it’s very refreshing — and I feel like it’s very difficult to get there. I think that we have a huge advantage just because we have a foundation and we do have some veterans coming back.”
In short, because players such as Brock Purdy, Anthony Johnson, Greg Eisworth, Charlie Kolar and 16 other starters with deep experience are in the room serving as prime examples, the freshmen hit the ground running leaps and bounds literally ahead of schedule.
But back to some of those fresh names popping off the video tape …
“I would say (tight end) Tyler Moore had a really, really successful spring,” Campbell said. “It’s really fun to watch him grow. and get better. I talked about Jaylin Noel already. I think he’s been extremely impressive at the wide receiver position for us. I thought (running back) Deon Silas was exceptional this spring. I talked about Andrew Mevis and certainly what he’s done. Howard Brown, for a big freshman defensive lineman who just got done playing quarterback for the last three years, to be able to get in on the defensive line, to be able to get in the defensive line stance and really grow at the rate he’s grown has certainly been impressive. And certainly (defensive back) Malik (Verdon) has done a really great job as well, so I think those guys have been really fun to watch.”
But wait — there’s more!
“Tristan Michaud, another big, long wide receiver that’s been really impressive as well, so I think that part’s exciting because it’s great to see those guys (excel),” Campbell said. “And I think the other guy I would hate not to mention is (offensive lineman) Dodge Sauser, who’s really had a great spring as well. So I think all those guys have done really good things. All of those guys have proven they’re going to be — they’ve got really exciting futures for us.”
Not to mention the present. ISU will almost certainly begin the season ranked in the top 10 nationally. The Cyclones will have a chance to scale unprecedented heights in a player-led climb toward the sport’s summit.
Andrews has played a pivotal role in the latter stages of that ascent, as has Campbell’s staff and all of today’s Cyclones — from the most experienced to the least.
“I do think the guys have bought in,” said Andrews, who joined Campbell’s two months before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns began last spring. “We’re really trying to snowball the positives from an excellent spring ball with the technical focus and the physical focus into the summer months where we have this positive reaction to what has happened. … Ultimately what I’ve read with (the players) from a body language and a verbal perspective in terms of what they’ve said, it’s been outstanding. And I know that they believe in coach Campbell and everything he’s about. He’s kind of laid the groundwork for how we would like to see this thing take off.”
Andrews adds to that foundation, helping ISU’s player-led program develop more leaders and eager followers. Mentorship is a skill. So is learning from it — and both can occur in unison.
“(Andrews) is always manipulating situations to where he wants to see how somebody will step up and react to it,” three-time first-team All-Big 12 safety Greg Eisworth said. “Will somebody emerge as a leader if this or that happens? So it’s challenging. He emphasizes just the togetherness of the senior class, or of our leadership team. We need to be tight-knit and then bleed out to the rest of the team.”
That’s happening — as Campbell’s glowing words for freshmen and newcomers attests. He wouldn’t speak them if they weren’t true. Still, the proof is required and Cyclone fans can begin assessing the evidence when the Sept. 4 season opener against Northern Iowa finally rolls around.
“There’s been a lot of challenges for us to be able to tackle and overcome and there’ll continue to be great challenges in front of us,” Campbell said. “But I think every day is an opportunity for us to grow and certainly for (me) to grow.”