So Iowa State's offense should improve on what was at least a decent showing in 2009. What about the defense?
Standard Downs S&P+: 106th
Redzone S&P+: 82nd
Q1 S&P+: 107th
1st Down S&P+: 94th
Rushing S&P+: 88th
Standard Downs: 92nd
Adj. Line Yards: 104th
Passing S&P+: 118th
Standard Downs: 112th
Adj. Sack Rate: 119th
I've joked a few times this offseason that if Iowa State wasn't forcing a fumble, they weren't making a stop. It's only a slight exaggeration. The Cyclones forced 32 fumbles in 13 games (2.5 per game) and still managed to rank among the 12 worst defenses in the country according to F/+.
How bad is a 109th-place finish? It is last among all BCS conference defenses. It placed them between Rice and North Texas. Only three BCS conference defenses (ISU, Washington State, Stanford) ranked among the bottom 25. They took the bend-don't-break thing to an impressive place, ranking dead last in success rates (efficiency) while just waiting (hoping) to force a turnover that got them out of trouble.
Of the 30 categories listed above, ISU ranked above 80th in just three: Rushing PPP+ (explosiveness), Passing Downs rushing (congrats?) and red zone rushing. Unless they were forcing a turnover, their pass defense was rather horrid, and their run defense was, at best, decent in certain circumstances.
And yet they went 7-6 with an average-at-best offense. Have I mentioned how much I like Paul Rhoads?
|Standard Downs S&P+||38||100||67||94||106|
|Passing Downs S&P+||35||102||37||102||96|
|Adj. Line Yards||16||96||74||55||104|
|Adj. Sack Rate||77||72||41||79||119|
|* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.
In Gene Chizik's first season in Ames (2007), ISU engineered a rather impressive turnaround after Dan McCarney's final Cyclones team was doomed by poor defense. They improved 40+ spots in F/+, S&P+, PPP+, Rushing S&P+, and Passing Downs S&P+, and they improved at least marginally across the board. And then they handed almost every bit of that progress back in 2008. The defensive line stayed decent in 2008, but everything else fell apart despite freshman Leonard Johnson playing better at cornerback than anybody could have expected. When Rhoads took over last season, the per-play regression continued. The run defense, particularly that which can be applied to the defensive line, disappeared, and they had the second-worst pass rush in the country. But again, they took advantage of the opportunities they managed to create. They intercepted 15 passes to go along with the 17 fumbles they recovered.
Let's just say it's very hard to force 32 turnovers, record 65 tackles for loss ... and still allow 416 yards per game. It was truly all-or-nothing for the Cyclones in 2009, and unfortunately, they will probably have to pull the same routine in 2010, as their level of talent and experience really isn't any better than last year.
2009 Unit Ranking: 119th (12th in the Big 12)
Projected DE Depth Chart
Patrick Neal (6'0, 227, Jr., 19.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks)
Rashawn Parker (5'11, 254, Sr., 17.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks in 2008)
Roosevelt Maggitt (6'1, 242, So., 13.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 2 PBU)
Cleyon Laing (6'3, 266, So., 1.5 tackles)
Aaron Moore (6'2, 244, RSFr.)
Willie Scott (6'2, 214, RSFr.)
Projected DT Depth Chart
This may shock you, but I grew up an undying fan of The Underdog. Any underdog at all. When Columbia was in the middle of their long mid-1980s losing streak, I naturally adopted them as my favorite 1-AA team. In one of the 17 college football preseason mags I got each year (probably Street & Smith's), I noted to my dad that Columbia returned something like 10 defensive starters, so surely that meant that their defense would be good enough to win some games. My dad's response: "Ten returning starters from that defense? Are you sure that's a good thing?"
I mention this story for two reasons. First, it reaffirms that I am a godd*** glutton for punishment. Columbia? Really? (And yes, my obsession with the Lions subsided as soon as they broke their losing streak.) Second, it somewhat accurately describes my mindset when it comes to the Iowa State front seven. Only two starters return from last year's starting seven (both on the line), but ... are we sure that's a bad thing? If there were a little more new blood involved, I would actually call it a reason for optimism.
Two starters do return on a line that was truly awful in 2009. Leading sacks man Christopher Lyle is gone, as is tackle Nick Frere. No returning lineman had more than 20 tackles or three tackles for loss last season. If anything, this line might have gotten even better by losing a few more players. What's most worrisome about this line, really, is that there is almost no young hope whatsoever. Of the 12 players I listed above, only five are freshmen or sophomores (two in the projected first or second string), and only two represent any sort of new blood. Bailey Johnson is serviceable, as are Patrick Neal and Rashawn Parker (who basically combine to form one returning starter -- Parker got hurt, and Neal took over for him), but ... yikes.
2009 Unit Ranking: 85th (12th in the Big 12)
Projected Depth Chart
Now for a unit that will have no troubles working youth into the equation. Five of ISU's top eight linebackers from last season are gone, incuding two of their three leading tacklers (Jesse Smith, Fred Garrin), but ... this wasn't a very good unit, and it probably won't get much worse with new blood.
Of the nine linebackers listed above, three are redshirt freshmen, three are sophomores, and three are juniors. Of course, they also combined for just 41.5 tackles last season, but we're looking at the bright side here. A.J. Klein was a solid three-star high school recruit, while Jacob Lattimer and Matt Tau'fo'ou were both three-star JUCOs. That doesn't mean much in a conference where most teams' starting linebackers are at least of the three-star variety, but you have to start somewhere, right?
(I didn't do a very good job of building optimism right there, did I? Just know that while ISU's linebackers in 2010 probably won't be very good, they could potentially be starting three third-year starters in 2012. The future is at least relatively bright for this unit, unlike the defensive line.)
2009 Unit Ranking: 62nd (6th in the Big 12)
Projected CB Depth Chart
Leonard Johnson (5'10, 184, Jr., 55.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 FF, 1 FR, 7 PBU)
Ter'ran Benton (6'0, 197, Jr., 31.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FR)
Jeremy Reeves (5'7, 167, So., 10.0 tackles)
Anthony Young (5'8, 174, Jr.)
Jansen Watson (5'9, 180, RSFr.)
Tahaun Fountain (5'8, 183, So.)
Projected S Depth Chart
David Sims (5'9, 209, Sr., 66.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 3 FF, 1 FR)
Michael O'Connell (5'11, 211, Sr., 31.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 PBU)
Zac Sandvig (5'10, 192, Sr., 8.5 tackles, 2 FR)
Durrell Givens (5'11, 198, Jr.)
Deon Broomfield (5'11, 180, RSFr.)
Earl Brooks (5'10, 191, Jr.)
Iowa State ranked 118th in Passing S&P+ last season, but that was primarily due to the pathetic pass rush. The defensive backs did their jobs relatively well, especially Leonard Johnson and David Sims. Whereas now-departed safety James Smith was a nice "last line of defense" guy who made tackles but didn't make a ton of plays, Sims was actually quite salty and quite effective. It earned him Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, and justifiably so. He forced three fumbles, intercepted five passes, and made 3.5 plays behind the line of scrimmage -- all very impressive for a safety. Sims was suspended for the season opener for unauthorized use of a credit card, but they should (should) be able to handle Northern Illinois without him.
In all, this is an experienced unit, and unlike with the defensive line, that's probably a good thing. Leonard Johnson was outstanding as a freshman and still pretty good last year as a sophomore, and his likely partner at cornerback, Ter'ran Benton, is a bit of a play-maker himself. Of the eight players on the projected two-deep, seven are either juniors or seniors, and if one newcomer or youngster can crack into the rotation, this could be a damn fine secondary. Unfortunately, it is a secondary that will likely once again be called upon to do too much thanks to the struggles in the front seven.
2009 Unit Ranking: 86th (9th in the Big 12)
Net Punting: 12th
Net Kicking: 8th
K Grant Mahoney (6'0, 168, Jr., 26-for-30 PAT, 13-for-20 FG, Long: 52)
P Kirby Van Der Kamp (6'4, 180, Fr.)
KR David Sims (5'9, 209, Sr., 22 returns, 23.4 average)
PR Josh Lenz (5'11, 190, So., 20 returns, 4.8 average)
I can say this for Grant Mahoney: he wasn't very good in 2009, but leg strength wasn't an issue. He was almost as good from 50+ yards (3-for-5) as he was from 35 (5-for-7 from 30-39 yards), and his kickoff distance was among the best in the country. But he doesn't seem to have much control over the cannon at his feet, and he managed to miss as many PATs last year as Mizzou has missed in the last six seasons combined. If he begins to harness his talents a little, he could be very good ... but at this point, he may have reached "He is what he is" territory. We'll see. ISU could suffer with the loss of punter Mike Brandtner. Good punting can do a bend-don't-break defense lots of favors, and Brandtner was very good; his replacement, be it incoming freshman Kirby Van Der Kamp or any number of walk-on candidates, will struggle to maintain that level of performance. As for the return game ... well, any new candidates who can challenge incumbents David Sims and Josh Lenz might be a good thing. Sims was alright at kick returns, but Lenz was awful in the punt returns category.
There might not be a more likable coach in America than Paul Rhoads, and in terms of managing and maximizing the talent he has, there might not be a better coach in America either. But at some point, he's going to have to attract better talent if he is to succeed. As I mentioned yesterday, he is currently a higher-upside version of Doc Sadler, Nebraska's basketball coach. Sadler always has his team in position to pull an upset or two (usually against Missouri, ahem), but at some point you want to stop pulling upsets -- you want to actually be the favorite. Playing Iowa State in any given season could be a frightening proposition, and I don't think it would surprise too many people if the Cyclones pulled an upset over either Nebraska or Mizzou, both of whom have to visit Ames this year. But without a higher talent level, competing with ISU in the standings won't be as difficult.
Iowa State took the "bend-don't-break" concept to insane levels in 2009, and that is very tough to replicate. Opponents fumbled 32 times against ISU last year, and 12 were completely unforced (I mean, just think back to that Nebraska game). They needed every ounce of luck they could get to score six wins, and with the schedule getting much tougher in 2010, they will need even more to do the deed. Without a doubt, they will be a tough out in 2010 ... but most of the time, they will probably be an out regardless.