DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — By all accounts, Paul Rhoads and Iowa State are thrilled to have each other.
The Cyclones have gone from wreck to respectable in his three seasons and the school gave him a 10-year, $20 million contract in the offseason.
Now comes the hard part.
Iowa State has gone 18-20 under Rhoads, with a pair of bowl trips and a program-defining upset of then-No. 2 Oklahoma State last November. Given the woeful history of the Cyclones and where they were when Rhoads got there, that’s not bad at all.
But the line between programs that opponents respect and ones that genuinely concern them is hard to cross. The Cyclones enter the 2012 season optimistic that they can take another step forward in their seemingly never-ending quest to become a serious threat in the Big 12.
“There’s a huge amount of energy that’s surrounding our football program right now,” Rhoads said. “Our football team, through three seasons, has experienced great growth and development. I think as we head toward this season we’ll put our most talented football team on the field.”
The Cyclones desperately need to settle on a quarterback. The 18-month competition between senior Steele Jantz and redshirt sophomore Jared Barnett should come to a head in the next week or so.
Rhoads has promised to pick one of them to start and leave them atop the depth chart.
Iowa State have heard that one before though.
Jantz opened last season as the No. 1 quarterback and showed he could be both spectacular and sloppy, often in the same series. A foot injury and ineffectiveness forced him to the bench. Barnett came in and was steady behind center, even leading the Cyclones to that victory over Oklahoma State. But he looked utterly lost to start the Pinstripe Bowl loss to Rutgers, and Rhoads yanked him in favor of Jantz.
With the Sept. 1 opener against Tulsa looming, the job would appear to be Jantz’s to lose as long as he’s healthy and can show he’s shed some of those careless tendencies.
“We most definitely need better play from the quarterback position if we’re going to become a better football team, and namely in the area of accuracy,” Rhoads said. “We threw too many to the wrong-colored jersey.”
The offense around Jantz or Barnett should be decent despite the loss of tackle Kelechi Osemele and offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who moved to the same position under Urban Meyer at Ohio State.
Converted quarterback Jerome Tiller has a chance to enhance what should be deep corps at receiver, and Iowa State should be set at running back with short-yardage force Jeff Woody complementing a possible new star in junior James White.
“He made a number of big plays for us a season ago. And in spread offenses, you better be producing some big plays if you’re going to score the points necessary in this league to win,” Rhoads said of White, who rushed for 743 yards and eight TDs while sharing time a year ago. “I don’t know if we have a guy that works harder. I don’t know if we’ve got a guy on our roster pound for pound that’s more explosive or stronger than James White.”
There’s no question who’ll lead the defense.
Iowa State has perhaps the best pair of linebackers in the country in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, two big, smart and fast leaders who’ll clog up the middle of the field.
There are questions along the defensive line and at cornerback with the loss of Leonard Johnson. But the Cyclones have enough depth to be able to shift guys around until they get a rotation they’re comfortable with.
The Cyclones drew over 50,000 fans for each home game for the first time in 2011, and an impressive $20 million football training facility is on the way. All that, and the long-term commitment that the charismatic Rhoads made with the school, seems to have put Iowa State in position to finally contend for Big 12 titles.
It just that nobody knows whether it could happen as soon as this season.
“I don’t have a roadmap that said that in 2012 we better be at this point, but we are progressing like I hope our football program would,” Rhoads said.