By Frank Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: With wins in three of the team's first four games, Iowa State fans had reason to be optimistic that this could be the year their beloved Cyclones would make serious inroads in the always tough Big 12 Conference. Then there were those who said, 'Hold on a minute. Beating the
likes of North Dakota State, Kent State and Army, albeit all by double digits,
isn't exactly the same as knocking off Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.'
True, but those wins were steps in the right direction, giving ISU a wealth of
confidence heading into the conference slate. Back-to-back losses to Kansas
State and Kansas brought the team back to Earth, but consecutive wins over
Baylor and Nebraska had the team thinking about the postseason for the first
time in a long time. That elusive sixth victory would have to wait a little
longer as the Cyclones dropped lopsided decisions to both Texas A&M and
Oklahoma State, but a 17-10 win over Colorado earned coach Paul Rhoads and his
squad bowl eligibility, still with one game to go. Unfortunately the regular-
season finale against Missouri wound up going to the Tigers, but the Cyclones
were rewarded for their efforts with a trip to the Insight Bowl against
Minnesota, a game in which ISU won narrowly, 14-13.
Coach Rhoads is impressed with the progress his team has made in such a short
amount of time, and talks passionately about what it will take to compete
week-in and week-out in the Big 12.
"We're excited about the growth of our football program. There's a word we
refer to often in our program, and that's development. We've seen a lot of
development take place over the last 18, 19 months."
OFFENSE: Iowa State was one of the better rushing teams in the Big 12 last
season, averaging 180 ypg. The return of senior RB Alexander Robinson (1,195
yards, six TDs) and nearly the entire offensive line should help solidify that
area, but where the Cyclones will likely live and die from an offensive
standpoint, is with the arm (and legs) of senior QB Austen Arnaud. More steady
than spectacular, Arnaud threw for just over 2,000 yards and 14 TDs in 2009.
Unfortunately, he was intercepted 13 times so making good decisions with the
football in his hands in paramount to any success the Cyclones achieve this
Rhoads was complimentary when referring to the work Arnaud has put in to get
better, saying, "He needed to improve fundamentally on his mechanics at being
a quarterback. He did that this spring. I think he has an excellent grasp of
our offense, which will improve his decision making when he takes the field.
And we'll need him to have that kind of improved success if we're going to as
a football team."
Rhoads had high praise for Robinson as well. "I think Alexander Robinson is a
guy that is underrated in this league. I wouldn't trade him for another back
in this league. I think he ranks right up there with all of them. He runs it.
He catches it. He blocks. He's intelligent. He's a leader."
Arnaud is fortunate to have one of the deepest receiving corps in the
conference at his disposal, with senior Jake Williams (36 receptions, 403
yards, five TDs) and junior Darius Darks considered the best of the bunch.
Other guys to keep an eye on include Sedrick Johnson and Darius Reynolds. The
key will be Darks ability to stay injury-free, something that has hampered his
growth to this point.
DEFENSE: Defensively is where the most improvement needs to be seen for Iowa
State to continue its ascension in the Big 12. The Cyclones, who return just
four starters from last year's unit, ranked 10th in the league in both run
defense (165.7 ypg) and pass defense (250.2 ypg), while finishing 11th in
total defense (415.9 ypg). Ironically, ISU permitted just 21.9 ppg to rank
fifth in the conference and 34th nationally.
With the Big 12's leading tackler from a year ago gone (Jesse Smith), the
Cyclones are breaking in three new starters at linebacker, which means the
potential for missed assignments exists, particularly early on.
The defensive line is a question mark as well, with very few experienced guys.
A healthy Rashawn Parker will be huge, as will the emergence of a guy like
The secondary boasts a pair of returning starters in junior CB Leonard Johnson
and senior SS David Sims, the 2009 Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Despite missing seven of his 20 FG attempts in '09, Grant
Mahoney has one of the strongest legs in the conference. Iowa State turns the
punting job over to a freshman, as Kirby Van Der Kamp appears to have the
inside track as the season opener approaches.
OUTLOOK: The Cyclones play one of the tougher schedules in the country this
season, opening with games against Northern Illinois and rival Iowa, before
kicking off Big 12 play against Kansas State in Kansas City. It doesn't get
easier from there as ISU will also tangle with Texas Tech, Utah, Oklahoma and
Texas -- all before Halloween.
Rhoads certainly has this program headed in the right direction, as it snapped
a 10-game losing streak with its season-opening win last season. Still, the
kind of foes littering this year's docket will make it nearly impossible for
the Cyclones to improve upon last year's win total.