After a surprising 8-5 season, the Cyclones goal this season is to continue taking steps forwards not backward.
Fortunately, quarterback Kyle Kempt was granted a sixth year. Kempt, whose breakout 343 yards three touchdown performance in an upset win over Oklahoma, is back after throwing for 1,787 yards and 15 touchdowns to three interceptions despite not starting until October. With a full offseason to prepare as a starter, those numbers should improve. Backup Zeb Noland is more athletic then Kempt and led the Cyclones to a 23-14 over Baylor showing he can win when called upon.
5’11 219lbs running back David Montgomery is one of the best in the conference. Last season he placed third in the conference with 88.2 yards a game finishing with 1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns. However, the Cyclones would like to limit his carries. He carried the ball 258 times, 218 more than anybody else. Sophomore Kene Nwangwu should help returning from a torn Achilles the cost him all of last season.
Despite losing star receiver Allen Lazard, the Cyclones have another one in the making in junior Hakeem Butler. At 6’6 219lbs he is a matchup nightmare who made the most of his 69 targets last year finishing with 41 receptions for 697 yards and seven touchdowns on an impressive 17 yards a catch. 6’4 senior Matthew Eaton is expected to step up as well after playing a limited role last season. Like Butler, he made the most of his targets with 21 receptions for 208 yards and four touchdowns on 28 targets. Look for Deshaunte Jones, who is expected to start in the slot, and tight end Chase Allen to have increased roles as well.
The offensive line returns three starters led by guard Julian Good-Jones who is versatile enough to play all three positions. John Knipfel and Bryce Meeker, the other two returning starters, are joined by redshirt freshman Colin Newell, an Ames native, at center and sophomore Sean Foster at left tackle. Depth is a concern with two freshmen and a sophomore listed as backups. They look to improve in the run game where they averaged five yards a carry 32.9 percent of the time, 119 in the country and second worst in the conference.
The Cyclones return a deep line with as many as 13 players possibly seeing the field. The anchor is junior end JaQuan Bailey who finished fifth in the conference with seven sacks. Junior nose tackle Ray Lima notched 19.5 tackles including 4.5 for loss. Eyioma Uwazurike battles 6’7 Mat Leo for the other end spot.
The leadership and play of do-everything linebacker Joel Lanning won’t be easy to replace. He was the fourth leading tackler in the conference with 114 total tackles. Junior Marcel Spears assumes the leadership role after registering 107 total tackles good enough for sixth in the conference. He is joined by returning starter Willie Harvey at outside linebacker. He recorded 56 tackles, 11.5 for loss with four sacks and an interception. Redshirt freshman O’Rein Vance takes over for Lanning at middle linebacker.
Experience abounds in the secondary as the corner duo of seniors D’Andre Payne and Brian Peavy have a combined 54 starts. Peavy earned first-team all-conference last season registering 81.5 tackles, 8.5 for loss, one sack, nine pass breakups, a forced fumble and two interceptions. Payne notched 43,5 tackles, six for loss, two PBU’s, and an interception. They are joined by safties Lawrence White and junior college transfer Greg Eisworth. DeMonte Ruth, Arnold Azunna, and Braxton Lewis provide depth.
The Cyclones must replace both their kicker and punter. Freshman kicker Brayden Narveson was one of the best high school kickers a year ago while punter Corey Dunn was one of the top junior college punters.
The schedule is challenging from the start. The season opens with a home date against strong FCS foe South Dakota State before traveling to Iowa. A 3-2 start would be great for the Cyclones as the back end is softer. If they can survive the early part of the season with a couple of wins and injury free another bowl birth is on the horizon.