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Coach Matt Campbell answers questions at Iowa State's media day on Thursday. Campbell's team has four Preseason All-Big 12 players on the defense next season in Ray Lima, Greg Eisworth, Marcel Spears Jr. and JaQuan Bailey.

Once Matt Campbell took his position in front of the microphone in the Bergstrom conference room Thursday morning with a white polo, a new haircut and a boatload of expectations on his team’s shoulders, football season in Ames, Iowa was fully underway.

In a wide-ranging press conference lasting more than 39 minutes, the fourth-year head coach tackled, among other things, the open competition at running back, questions on special teams and the growth of the team’s culture.

Running back position is 'wide open'

With running back workhorse David Montgomery off to the NFL (and potentially a starting job with the Chicago Bears), the running back position has been a potential weak spot for the Cyclones’ offense since spring practice.

As fall practice gets underway, it doesn’t sound like it’s any closer to being solved.

“I think there’s a lot of guys in that room that have earned the right to play football,” Campbell said of the battle. “I see it as a wide open race, to be honest with you.”

Campbell wouldn’t rule out the use of a committee, especially at the beginning of the season to gauge which running backs are ready to see playing time and step up.

ISU v Akron

Running back Johnnie Lang races past Akron's players during the Cyclone's game against the Zips on Sept. 22 at Jack Trice Stadium. The Cyclones won 26-13.

Contenders for the position include veterans Kene Nwangwu and Sheldon Croney, redshirt sophomore Johnnie Lang and true freshmen Breece Hall and Jirehl Brock. Brock and Hall are full of hype, with both being four-star recruits out of high school and Hall turning heads in spring practice. It stands to reason that both will get a chance at playing time from the first play against Northern Iowa on August 31 — but there is still plenty of time for things to change in fall camp.

Will Punting Woes Subside?

One of Iowa State’s biggest faults last season was its lack of consistency on special teams, particularly in the punting department. Corey Dunn showed flashes of talent during his first year with the Cyclones, but he had fits of inconsistency and was prone to miscues. It led to his benching in the Drake game for Joe Rivera. 

Special Teams coach Joe Houston was not renewed by the team at the end of the year, and this year will see it handled by committee.

Campbell said that Dunn will be out of the season with an injury, opening the door for Rivera to potentially take control of the position from the start of fall camp.

“We’re really excited about [Rivera],” Campbell said. “One of the things I love about Corey is he’ll be the best specialist coach you can find out there.”

Campbell expressed confidence in most of his kickers, even mentioning walk-on Peyton Paddock and commending his work on kick-offs. Redshirt freshman Brayden Narveson was also praised for his versatility and ability to place kick, do kick-offs and potentially even punt, but it doesn’t sound like Connor Assalley will see his job threatened in fall camp as place kicker. 

Still, the makeup of Iowa State’s special teams lineup is very much up in the air. For the Cyclones to live up to their vast potential, consistent special teams performance will be key. 

Culture change keyed by Lima's leadership

Iowa State has vastly changed its culture since the hiring of Campbell, becoming a gritty, hard-working team with talent and speed almost everywhere on the field. A lot of that is down to the developmental style of Campbell’s coaching, as well as the experience of Jon Heacock and Tom Manning. 

According to Campbell, though, the most important part of the Cyclones’ growth is senior defensive lineman Ray Lima. 

“He’s the reason the culture of this football program has turned,” Campbell said. “Who he is, what he is, what he stands for.

“He’s a guy that has made me a better person and taught me the right way to lead.”

Lima is entering his third season as a starter for the Cyclones, and he will be anchoring the defensive line with JaQuan Bailey and Jamahl Johnson. Their leadership has been crucial in Iowa State making the leap from Big 12 also-ran to potential conference title contenders.

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