It’s difficult to overstate the job that three-time Big 12 Coach of the Year Matt Campbell has done with Iowa State in just six seasons.
On paper, all that work and success seems poised to culminate in what could be the best season in program history. And yet, with the wealth of returning talent and experience the Cyclones boast, unfamiliar expectations are sure to come with that as well.
It’s all warranted. After an 8-1 Big 12 regular season, an appearance in the conference championship game and a 34-17 win over Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, it’s much easier to list Iowa State starters that aren’t coming back than the ones that are.
That’s because Iowa State will return 19 players who started for the team last year, including 10 on an offense that includes a couple of Big 12 Player of the Year candidates if not potential Heisman Trophy contenders.
Senior quarterback Brock Purdy is the owner of 25 school records already with three All-Big 12 selections in three seasons. Purdy threw for 2,750 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2020 and added 382 yards and five more scores on the ground.
Lining up behind him will be junior running back Breece Hall, who was the program’s first unanimous All-America selection and the runner-up for the Doak Walker Award last season after rushing for 1,572 yards and 21 touchdowns.
And that’s just the start. The Cyclones have been at the forefront of a tight end renaissance in recent years, with big, physical, versatile and often interchangeable players manning the position. Those players are also often on the move before the snap, generating mismatches both in terms of run blocking and route running.
Seniors Charlie Kolar (6-foot-6, 260 pounds) and Chase Allen (6-7, 250) were at the forefront of the group a year ago, combining for 63 receptions, 827 yards and nine touchdowns, finishing second and fourth on the team respectively in receiving yards.
Iowa State is even big on the outside, led by 2020 leading receiver Xavier Hutchinson (6-3, 210), who hauled in 64 passes for 771 yards and four touchdowns. While the group needs more established weapons, Sean Shaw (6-6, 220) and Joe Scates (6-2, 200) will figure into the mix and bring even more big bodies to the edge.
Up front, Kene Nwangwu was selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings, but the Cyclones have plenty returning to help anchor a balanced offense yet again. Trevor Downing was injured in the team’s opener against Louisiana and missed the rest of the year, but between him, Colin Newell, Derek Schweiger, Darrell Simmons Jr. and Sean Foster, Iowa State is plenty seasoned. In fact, seven ISU lineman have combined to make 93 starts.
Defensively, it’s more of the same as Iowa State returns 12 of its top 15 tacklers off a defense that ranked behind only WVU in total defense (340.4 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (21.4 points per game).
It starts with senior Mike Rose, the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, who led the team in tackles (96) and interceptions (five) last year while also making 10.5 stops for loss.
Will McDonald IV led the league in sacks with 10.5 and will be back at defensive end with Eyloma Uwazurike figuring into the mix on the other side. Cornerbacks Anthony Johnson Jr. and Tayvonn Kyle combined to make 11 pass breakups in 2020 and should be back to man the cornerback positions.
Like Purdy, senior safety Greg Eisworth II has three All-Big 12 selections to his name and made 47 tackles, four pass breakups and picked off a pass last season.
Though West Virginia still holds a 5-4 edge in the series, the Cyclones have won each of the last three by a combined score of 110-34. Iowa State is 24-12 in conference play since going 2-7 in the league in 2016.