Editor's note: The Iowa State Daily Sports Desk will have a spring preview of each position group for the Cyclones heading into the 2021 season. You can find other position group stories here.
For the last month and a half, the Iowa State football program has been going through its spring practice where practices have been less physical, focused on fundamentals and moving on from players who are looking to make their mark at the next level.
Fundamentals and technique an emphasis on both ends
In separate interviews Wednesday, Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Manning and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said fundamentals and technique are things they’ve been focusing on with their respective groups.
Manning said this has led to growth across the board.
“I think for us, it's been a learning experience and I think it's allowed for our players as well as our coaching staff to have a tremendous amount of growth,” Manning said.
Many position coaches on both offense and defense have made this kind of statement in the last few weeks. Some players have said this in interviews as well.
Manning said a focus on fundamentals has led to growth from both young players and experienced players as well.
“I think what's been really impressive to me is I think we have felt like there's been growth from a lot of our younger players or guys that maybe haven't been in the program or haven't had as much on-the-field experience, but also I feel like there's been a lot of growth with guys like Brock Purdy and Charlie Kolar are and guys that have played a ton of football here as well,” Manning said.
Coaching and teaching players the right fundamentals and techniques and coaching the way the coaching staff wants them to be coached are some things Manning said are challenges but are important for the coaching staff to do.
“I think it has challenged us to not just be in the traditional sense of, ‘Hey, we do X, Y and Z right now,’ but hey, let's look at all the ways that we can to teach the things that we're trying to teach most effectively for each player,” Manning said.
Manning said this could lead to players having a new pathway of understanding of what they are teaching and a new way of mastering it.
Last year, Iowa State couldn’t have spring practices due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world.
Now that they’ve had the ability to have those spring practices this year, fundamentals and technique appear to be what the Cyclones are harping on.
When asked what’s made him smile the most this spring, Heacock said it was the improvement on the fundamentals and that it hasn’t come from just one group of players.
“I think our guys have done a great job, it's been the focus of our spring, from top to bottom, from old guys to young guys, improving their craft,” Heacock said.
He said the biggest benefit of this was being able to go back to last fall, find the things the team was “just OK at” and improve from there.
Earlier in the spring, Iowa State Head Coach Matt Campbell said practices would involve less contact to preserve the players' energy.
Heacock said this made fundamentals the focal point of the offseason.
“I think it was tremendous. I think the reality became that you spent time on fundamentals. You weren't running into each other. It was really a fundamental period of time,” Heacock said. "I feel like as the coordinator and watching all the different position groups that it's allowed us to improve at our craft... I think it has allowed us to develop our young people at a faster rate than maybe we would have in other springs.”
Coaches speak on NFL Draft hopefuls
With the 2021 NFL Draft beginning Thursday and ending Saturday, some former Iowa State players have the chance to be drafted or could sign a rookie free agent deal.
This list includes Landen Akers, JaQuan Bailey, Kene Nwangwu, Dylan Soehner and Lawrence White IV.
Neither Heacock nor Manning had any insight on where any of these five could end up but praised their abilities and careers at Iowa State.
Bailey and White were both starters for the Cyclones in the past two seasons.
“I thought they both had excellent pro days and I think it's been a situation where you just hope for the best," Heacock said. "We talk about them daily around here, what have you heard, all of those things, and it gets this time where you don't really hear much or know much and you're hopeful that they just get an opportunity. I think that's the reality of the draft.”
Both Bailey and White were at least an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention for at least one season, with Bailey being a First-Team member in 2020.
Iowa State is losing two more players who have at least one All-Big 12 Honorable Mention, Nwangwu and Soehner.
“We've had a lot of contact with a lot of people from area scouts to general managers to head coaches. I've talked to a lot of people about those guys and I think, certainly, there's a lot of impressive videotape from both of them,” Manning said. “I think both of them did a really good job with all the things that they had to handle between the end of the season and now.”
Manning said he doesn’t know where they’ll end up in the draft.
“It always comes down to what's available and who needs what, it will be interesting to see how that works out. I'm hoping that they get certainly what they want and reach their goals and dreams to be called out there,” Manning said. “But I also feel like if they don't, I think that they're gonna have plenty of opportunities going forward regardless."
Despite not knowing what team they could go to, Manning said they will likely have the opportunity to succeed.
“I really feel like anybody that has the opportunity to get them on their football team are going to be really happy because they're both really good football players,” Manning said. “I could talk about each one of those guys forever, just great character, great kids, tough kids, hard-working, super intelligent guys."
Building off of a big 2020
Iowa State brings the overwhelming majority of its roster for the 2020 season and certainly has high expectations heading into the 2021 season, but it does have some areas that have question marks.
The five players mentioned above were all part of an Iowa State team that made it to its first-ever Big 12 Championship in 2020 and won the program’s first-ever New Year’s Six Bowl Game (The Fiesta Bowl).
Now, Iowa State is tasked with finding new players to fill the holes they left.
One of these voids Manning talked about Wednesday was the one left by Soehner.
Soehner, a mostly blocking tight end, was one of three tight ends Iowa State used in the 2020 season, along with Kolar and Chase Allen, who are more pass catchers than Soehner is.
Manning said it is very difficult to replace Soehner, so they have different looks to make up for it.
“For us, it's about the players that we have, continuing to develop those guys and finding the right combination of players to put on the field at the same time,” Manning said in regards to playing without Soehner. "Whether that means more receivers, more tight ends, how those things dictate and shake out, I think that's really hard to say yet.”
Some of the players that could get some more playing time with Soehner going pro are sophomores Easton Dean and DeShawn Hanika and junior Jared Rus.
All three have played on special teams for most of their collegiate careers but now have the potential to see more time on offense with Soehner going to the NFL.
Manning said all three of those guys have been doing good work in the spring practices.
“I think for us, it's about finding the right things to do and how to use those guys,” Manning said. “I think that's something that's still obviously a work in progress and as each team dictates what we have the ability to do, that will help us dictate our formations and our abilities to decide personnel.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Iowa State loses Bailey on the defensive line and White in the secondary and will have to find starters in those positions.
Other than losing Bailey and White, Iowa State returns nine of 11 starters on defense from a 9-3 team that won the Big 12 regular-season title.
With that amount of experience on the defensive side of the ball, improvement should be expected.
“Even though the same people are coming back, we have to be a better team, we have to be better on defense, we have to be better at our techniques,” Heacock said.
If Iowa State does get even better on defense, the ceiling could be very high.
Some already have Iowa State as being one of the best teams in the 2021 season, like ESPN, who has Iowa State at the No. 4 spot in the FPI Rankings.
Some might say Iowa State couldn’t be or shouldn’t be there, but those thoughts don’t seem to bother the Iowa State coaches.
“I don't think you would coach if you didn't think that or play if you didn't think that,” Heacock said in regards to having a shot to make the College Football Playoff and contending for a national title. “We wouldn't coach or play if you didn't think you could go beat the best.”