Cyclone defense ready to prove doubters wrong

AMES – The Iowa State offense definitely has the hype. It has plenty of name recognition, two returning quarterbacks with experience, five returning starters on the line and a plethora of weapons in the backfield and at receiver.

The real question going into the new season lies with the defense. And how the Iowa State football team’s defense performs in 2014 may be the deciding factor in whether or not the Cyclones bounce back from a disappointing 3-9 campain a year ago.

“I don’t really have to say much because they read it all,” said Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham at the Cyclones’ annual football media day Sunday. “We want to play with a chip on our shoulder. We want to prove we are a good football team and it will take all 22 of us or 19 of us, however many we put out on the field in a given game.”

Fans will recognize defensive returners Cory Morrissey and Brandon Jensen on the defensive line, Jared Brackens at linebacker and even Niguel Tribune and Sam E. Richardson in the secondary.

But it’s the other guys who are expected to start who give anyone who has an opinion an uneasy feeling as the season quickly approaches.

The Cyclones gave up more than 33 points per game last year and that included a shutout against Kansas. Iowa State’s offense needed 52 points in triple overtime to beat West Virginia, so if the Cyclones want to get back to a bowl game and win in the postseason for the first time since 2009, the defense will have to play much better.

“We have to tackle better,” said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads. “But we have great leadership in the defensive coaches. We also have a group of kids that doesn’t feel that way about themselves. I don’t have to remind them of what people outside the program are saying about them.”

Rhoads is waiting until later this week to name his starting quarterback. Grant Rohach and Sam B. Richardson both appear as the starter on the latest depth chart.

And the man who begins his sixth season in Ames believes there still has been no separation.

“Neither of them has done enough to sort things out yet,” said Rhoads. “But the plan is to still name a starter this week.”

Whoever accepts the snaps from returning starting center Tom Farniok will have plenty of options at his disposal.

Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy both return to the backfield, while all-Big 12 tight end E.J. Bibbs and all-conference wide receiver Quenton Bundrage also are back for the Cylcones.

Throw in returner Jarvis West and highly touted true freshman Allen Lazard from Urbandale, and the Cyclones’ offense has the potential to be very productive under new coordinator Mark Mangino, a former head coach at Big 12 rival Kansas.

“The offense is coming together pretty well,” said Farniok, a three-year starter who was an all-Big 12 honorable mention selection at center in 2013. “It’s the most non-complex complex offense you’ll see. It’s been fun watching it all come together recently.”

Rohach may have an edge in the starting quarterback job despite only starting the final four games last season. If he wants to beat out Richardson, who started the first eight games, he knows he’ll have to be the one who makes the fewest mistakes.

“It’s an open competition, no one is in the lead and it’s a dead race in my eyes and we’ll see what happens when they make that choice,” said Rohach, who threw for 1,208 yards and eight scores in his seven appearances last year. “I need to cut down on the mental mistakes. I can’t ruin the momentum of the offense and I can’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole.”

The Cyclones lost their first seven games in league play last year before shutting out Kansas, 34-0, at home and closing out West Virginia, 52-44, in triple overtime on the road.

Iowa State, which also lost to in-state rivals Northern Iowa and Iowa at Jack Trice Stadium in non-conference play, also won just one home game in 2013. That was the win over the rival Jayhawks.

The Cyclones went to bowl games in 2011 (Pinstripe) and 2012 (Liberty) but last won a postseason game in 2009 when they knocked off Minnesota, 14-13, in the Insight Bowl.

“Going 3-9 last year was rough,” said former West Marshall standout and now Cyclone senior Drake Ferch, who is expected to be the starting SAM nickel linebacker this season. “It’s never fun to not go to a bowl game. We are hungry and ready to improve. We didn’t show out on our home field last year and that hurt. We have a great fan base and for us not to win very many at home was frustrating.

“The goal is win a bowl game. Whether that’s winning six, nine, 10, it doesn’t matter. We just want to take it day by day and see where we sit in the end.”

The Cyclones kick off the 2014 season with a home game against defending FCS national champion North Dakota State on Aug. 30. They start Big 12 play the following week at home against Kansas State before heading to Iowa City to face the in-state rival Hawkeyes on Sept. 13.

“We’ll need to be ready right away and I don’t think there will be any problem having out kids’ attention,” said Rhoads. “Nobody likes being told that they are the ninth best team out of 10 teams. Nobody likes to be told that they aren’t going to stop anybody. That chip forms without you having to say anything.”