Matt Campbell picked Iowa State for a reason. The coach had come up the ranks for his work in the state of Ohio, playing and coaching at D3 powerhouse Mount Union, then Bowling Green, and finally turning Toledo into a MAC power. Iowa State offered him a chance to coach within range of the midwestern recruiting turf he knew well with power five resources, a bought in community and administration, and also the chance to coach a pretty talented collection of skill talents.
While Campbell added David Montgomery to the fold himself he inherited WRs Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler, the latter of whom may end up going in the first or second round of the 2019 NFL draft. The story for Iowa State over the last few years has been one of a program focus on culture and physicality, defensive innovation, and making the most of a roster that lacked offensive infrastructure but didn’t lack for skill talent.
The Cyclones had three different leading passers in Campbell’s first three seasons as HC.
Campbell’s Cyclone passing game
|Year||Leading passer||Lead receiver|
|Year||Leading passer||Lead receiver|
|2016||Jacob Park: RS sophomore. 1791 yards, 8 ypa, 12-5 TD/INT||Allen Lazard: 69 catches, 1018 yards, 7 TDs|
|2017||Kyle Kempt: RS senior. 1787 yards, 7.4 ypa, 15-3 TD/INT||Allen Lazard: 71 catches, 941 yards, 10 TDs|
|2018||Brock Purdy: Freshman. 2250 yards, 10.2 ypa, 16-7 TD/INT||Hakeem Butler: 60 catches, 1318 yards, 9 TDs|
It’s been tumultuous at QB, none of these guys broke 3k passing yards in large part because they split time with each other or other passers like Joel Lanning (eventually moved to MLB) and Zeb Noland (just transferred to ND State). The OL has also struggled to get their footing, exemplified by the career of Julian Good-Jones who has started at three different positions for Iowa State and has ended up at left tackle heading into 2019.
Last year they built a lot of their offense around hitting RPOs and play-action shots to Hakeem Butler. The 6-6, 220 pounder was nearly unguardable and regularly embarrassed opponents trying to tackle him after the catch. They usually set that up with David Montgomery and the run game, the similarly NFL-bound RB turned 257 carries into 1216 yards while regularly turning potential TFLs into positive gains and fighting to make 2-4 yard carries into 4-8 yard chain-moving gains with his ability to break tackles and cut upfield.
However, they also went 7-2 after making another change at QB that gave them the boost to put them over the top.
Pump fake Purdy
In addition to his passing numbers, Brock Purdy ran the ball 80 times for 425 yards at 5.3 ypc (after sack yardage) with five TDs. His signature move and namesake was a devastating weapon he applied both to their play-action and RPO game to salvage plays when their OL gave up pressure or to maximize scrambling lanes and opportunities. Purdy also did a lot of damage in the designed run game, particularly on their counter play...
...which created additional opportunities for him to execute other play-action concepts.
He had seven games with 10 carries or more, going as high as 19 carries in his opening start against Oklahoma State. Purdy quietly had a similar resume in high school, running the ball 136 times for 842 yards and six scores as a junior and then 137 times for 1017 yards and 10 TDs as a senior. However, he was a 3-star recruit that didn’t get much attention until just before NSD2 when he blew up nationally with offers coming in from places like Texas A&M. Purdy stuck with Campbell and was his ace up the sleeve for the 2018 season.
With Purdy at the helm, Iowa State had an extra dimension to their run game in the form of QB reads and direct snap runs that helped clear up space for Monty and Butler. He was also excellent in the play-action and RPO game, flipping the ball out quickly when the read was clear...
...and then making the most of the situation when the read was unclear or the OL allowed pressure through:
The RPO and play-action game asked a lot of Purdy in terms of toughness to stand in against hits and pressure and decision-making to either make the most of those situations or to avoid the worst outcomes.
Purdy has some undeniably impressive qualities as a college QB. Whereas the previous passers for Campbell were guys that could reliably get the ball down the field to weapons like Lazard or Butler, Purdy offers that and then a lot of value add as a playmaker with a Manziel-esque skill set. If he can stay healthy he’ll finally offer the Cyclones both stability and playmaking at QB they hadn’t had in previous years under Campbell.
Will 2019 be the year of infrastructure for the Iowa State offense?
I noted before 2018 that they could be competitive in the Big 12 title race if the OL finally put it together and started blocking open some holes for Montgomery. They did compete for the Big 12 title, essentially losing it in a road loss against Texas very late in the year, but it was less because of a breakthrough performance by the OL and more due to pump fake Purdy.
However, here’s what they return on the OL heading into 2019:
This all-Iowan group closed the year for them with Purdy and it’s all coming back for 2019 unless one of the younger talents on the roster is able to edge out a returning starter. It’s a group that’s been solid in the run game and could get better but could really make strides next year in pass protection, particularly at left tackle where Good-Jones has athleticism but is still learning how to play outside.
On top of that, the Cyclones have a number of TEs coming back that earned a lot of playing time in 2018 and for whom they have big plans in 2019. The Cyclones really expanded their usage of TEs in 2018, making the most of them in a diverse inside zone system in which the TE’s allowed them to create soft edges and extra double teams...
...and then mix in QB run game to create extra confusion and variety in the angles.
The Cyclone TE room is big and skilled and has had a few years in the system now to learn the blocking angles that can make their route running ability matter. It’s an offense not dissimilar from what Michigan ran last year with Shea Patterson and Chris Evans, except Purdy was both a superior runner and passer over the Wolverine signal-caller even as just a true freshman.
No one is used to Iowa State being competitive in the Big 12 and most keep expecting them to fall off, especially in 2019 when they’ll be without the supremely talented David Montgomery or Hakeem Butler. But neither of those players were highly sought after out of high school, much like Purdy (until the last minute), and they got a lot of development and help from Campbell and his staff.
In 2019 they’re going to have nine starters back from the league’s second best defense and an offense that has a lot more stability and building blocks than is commonly guessed. With 107 starts back on the OL, three TEs that are 6-5/250 or better and in their third or fourth years in the program, and pump fake Purdy at the helm the Cyclones have a lot of ways to overpower teams in the middle of the field and create space and matchups outside for their next crop of wide receivers.
That group figures to involve speedy burners like Deshaunte Jones (366 yards and four TDs in 2018) and Tarique Milton (417 yards and one TD in 2018) as well as some other largely unheralded players found by Campbell and his staff. Expect the Cyclones to motion the TEs all over the place to force defenses to try and maintain sound run D structures only to throw it over the top to shockingly wide open receivers.
Things will look a little different but while the ultra-skilled talents that Campbell relied on to reach this point are moving on, the infrastructure might finally be in place for the next generation of Cyclone skill players to take things up another level.