Iowa State should have one of the most talented teams in school history.
The Cyclones will also be without two of the most gifted players they’ve ever had in wide receiver Hakeem Butler and running back David Montgomery, and replacing that lost production will be paramount to their success next season.
That won’t be easy considering that Butler and Montgomery each have an outside shot at being Iowa State’s first first-round pick in 46 years. But the Cyclones should finally have enough depth to withstand those blows.
Iowa State — which is coming off back-to-back 8-5 seasons after going nearly a decade without a winning one — opens Aug. 31 against Northern Iowa
“There’s competition across the board. I think we’ve seen more guys push the needle to become the best they can possibly be than we’ve had,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “But until they have to own that position…it’s hard.”
Butler had arguably the best season by a wide receiver that Iowa State had ever seen in 2018, racking up 1,318 receiving yards with six 100-yard games before leaving school early. Iowa State will also lose Matt Eaton, who caught 27 passes for 304 yards a year ago.
The Cyclones will lean on Tarique Milton and Deshaunte Jones, both of whom saw significant snaps a year ago, and hope for a few young players to emerge in the months ahead.
“We think there are some really talented guys there,” Campbell said. “There are certainly some different guys that have risen to the occasion. What great competition breeds (is) some success, and that’s been really fun to watch.”
Montgomery was just the eighth Cyclone with multiple 1,000-yard seasons, rushing for 1,216 yards and 13 touchdowns last season despite playing behind an inconsistent line.
Kene Nwangwu and Sheldon Croney Jr., both upperclassmen with plenty if game experience, will be back in 2019. Neither of those players has ever really done enough to show that they could come close to matching what Montgomery did in two-plus seasons in Ames. But Campbell sounded confident that they’ll be able to emerge from Campbell’s shadow.
“Those guys are veteran guys. I trust those guys,” Campbell said. “I’m really happy with that group.”
If Nwangwu, Croney or Johnnie Lang, who’s been out this spring, can’t emerge, four-star freshman Breece Hall might have a shot at the starting job next fall.
Campbell said that the 6-foot-1 Hall, who enrolled early after turning down interest from the likes of Michigan and Nebraska, has made “great strides” from his first practice to his most recent one.
“You should be going, probably, on a date to Pizza Hut with your girlfriend. Instead you’re there and all of a sudden you’re (facing a Big 12 defense). You’re like ‘Holy Smokes. That’s my first day of practice,'” Campbell said. “That a position where, if you can run the ball, you can run the ball. And you saw him gain that confidence midway through the spring.”