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.
"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" — This old cliche usually doesn't have a chance to be applied in the turnstile that is college football.
Yearly roster attrition, potential coaching changes and schedule adjustments can change just about everything about a given team, thus removing the hope of truly changing what went wrong the year before.
But can the same be said about Iowa State? After a 9-3 season, the program's first Big 12 Championship appearance and a Fiesta Bowl victory, does Iowa State even have to "try again," even after the history book that was the 2020 season?
Iowa State Head Coach Matt Campbell, who spoke with the media Thursday, and his coaching staff would say there's no other option.
Coming back to be even better
Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock started the conversation around the team not staying complacent on the heels of one of the greatest seasons in school history. Luckily for Heacock and Campbell, Iowa State returns all but two true starters from a year ago back for 2021.
But why did the normal attrition not impact Iowa State as it did other teams? Heacock said it's because the Cyclones believe they're not at their best — not yet.
"It's been a lot of hard work; it's been a lot of commitment," Heacock said to reporters Wednesday. "It's what we set out to do here, and we're still doing it. And I don't think we've reached a point where it's all good. Again, I go back and watch the videotape. It's not all good. Our players came back here because they weren't all good. And that's the fairness."
The record might have been a program-first in 2020, along with the national hype, but Campbell said the program's mission — which has been around since he arrived in 2015 focusing on becoming the best version of yourself — has and will never change.
And the amount of impactful players like Charlie Kolar, Mike Rose, Chase Allen, Brock Purdy and so many others returning shows Campbell that they're not done developing just yet. Those names and many more have become trusted figures for the coaching staff, and it's been rewarding for Campbell to see them trust the staff back in their desire to return for another season.
“You got guys that are trusted,” Campbell said. “You got guys that decided to come back here because they want to be their best, or they wouldn't be back here. … And I think one of the things that’s exciting about a veteran football team on the opposite end of it is, ‘Man, can those guys raise the level of the young players around them to be at their level?"
Iowa State will continue to be a program that will have to battle if it wants to be one of the best. Campbell and Heacock said complacency won't cut it in Ames, Iowa.
After all, a 9-3 record would indicate that the Cyclones left opportunities on the table a year ago. Heacock said that's no secret amongst players and staff.
"Our guys and coaches, we left that bowl game and the Big 12 title game and the Louisiana game and Oklahoma State, I just think we left those games like there's still a whole bunch out there for us to do, and I really am blessed that our coaches feel that way, that our players feel that way," Heacock said Wednesday. "And I certainly hope we're not done doing what we're here to do. And that's the purpose of it all. It's been a lot of fun."
The Cyclones want more, and they're ready to work for it to be theirs.
With spring practice nearing its end, Campbell wants the message to say the same during the summer and heading into fall camp.
“I do agree with Coach [Heacock], you can’t stay the same," Campbell said. "You gotta continue to strain to get better. There’s videotape evidence of that from last football season. I think there’s a lot of areas for us that we need to improve on and continue to improve on."
Focus on fundamentals, then the playbook
Details, details, details — that's been the buzzword for Campbell and his coaching staff throughout the spring. That's not to say the focus on fundamentals and precision wasn't harped on in previous seasons, but Iowa State's veteran roster has allowed for a more conscious effort to focus less on the playbook and scheme and get into the nitty-gritty.
Heading into 2021, Iowa State knows who it is on offense and defense, leaving more time to grind film and extra reps instead of implementing plays.
“The more we’ve grown, we’ve settled into who we are and schematically what we want to do,” Campbell said.
Campbell said younger roster members seeing older guys come back and spend as much time as they have on their craft will pay off in the long run.
Even with three tight end sets and scrambled personnel packages at times, Iowa State's playbook isn't as complicated as you might think.
“Our playbook, even though sometimes it looks expanded, is very thin anyways,” Campbell said. “So, I think more mastery of skill was — and really what we’ve been after, honestly, over the last two years — has really been our focal point.”
The heir to Kene Nwangwu and the kicking game
Campbell offered an update on the special teams situation for Iowa State on Thursday, including his thoughts on who could try and fill Kene Nwangwu's role as kickoff returner.
He threw out a good mix of a few names, including some experienced playmakers, like Xavier Hutchinson and Joe Scates, and some younger faces, like Deon Silas and Jaylin Noel.
Nwangwu finished third in the Big 12 and seventh nationally (minimum 10 returns) with his kickoff return average at 28.9. The former Cyclone had five returns of 30-plus yards last season, leaving Iowa State with a big role to fill before the season rolls around.
"I think it’ll really be a good competition all the way till fall camp," Campbell said. "Those are going to be big question marks that we’re going to have to answer for sure because that is such a big area of our special teams game planning that we want to have somebody there that can really give us the opportunity to have success in the kick return game."
Iowa State returns its specialists as well for 2021.
Veteran kicker Connor Assalley will be back, but he will be in competition with graduate transfer Andrew Mevis from Fordham.
Mevis didn't play in 2020 after the Patriot League canceled its season due to COVID-19.
"Obviously, we inherited a graduate transfer in Andrew Mevis who has had a really positive spring and has a powerful leg, and I think [Mevis] will certainly have the opportunity to help us in terms of the kickoff world but also continue to compete with Connor Assalley," Campbell said.
Campbell views the duo as proven guys with experience, both with power and accuracy that will leave the Cyclones set in the kicking game.
Punter Corey Dunn is back as a redshirt senior, along with both respective long snappers Connor Guess and Koby Hathcock for 2021.