Iowa State began spring practice Monday. Below is a preview of what to look for from the Cyclones during spring ball:
Offensive returner ready to take next step: There were only two tight ends who ranked in the top 25 of the Big 12 in receiving in 2013. Texas Tech unanimous All-American Jace Amaro and Iowa State’s E.J. Bibbs. The former junior college transfer also finished second all-time in receptions by a Cyclones tight end in a season, and was the only player on the team in 2013 with multiple receptions in every game. With a more stable quarterback situation and the FBS transition year behind him, Bibbs could be in for a big final season. He also has a new position coach in Mark Mangino, who will be doubling as the Cyclones’ offensive coordinator. With Mangino, the athletically gifted Bibbs should have even more opportunities to make plays in the passing game.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: After getting thrown into the starting lineup as a freshman, Nigel Tribune took his lumps, notably in his first career start against Texas. But thanks to his smarts and natural awareness, Tribune rapidly improved the rest of the season. As the only full-time returning starter in the secondary -- and the only true freshman to touch the field for Iowa State the last two years -- the Cyclones will be counting on Tribune to take on a leadership role defensively. If his freshman season is any indication, he should be up to the challenge.
Redshirt freshman to watch: Last season, neither Sam B. Richardson nor Grant Rohach grabbed a stranglehold on the starting quarterback job. That, coupled with the arrival of the new offensive regime, could give Joel Lanning a chance to turn Iowa State’s quarterback derby into a three-way race. Lanning, who picked the Cyclones over Nebraska, has a strong arm and enough athleticism to be a factor. All the quarterbacks will be learning a new offense, too, which could level the field to Lanning’s benefit. With a big spring, he could be a dark horse answer to Iowa State’s search for its QB of the future.
Most significant position battle: Since Austen Arnaud’s graduation four years ago, the Cyclones have been unsuccessful in tabbing a permanent replacement. Instead, Iowa State has cycled through Steele Jantz, Jared Barnett, Richardson and Rohach. The Cyclones liked the potential Richardson showed as a freshman, but he was banged up all last season as a sophomore, leading to Rohach taking over the second half of the season. Rohach had some moments late in 2013 in wins over Kansas and, especially, West Virginia. But the battle is far from being decided. Rohach still has much to prove, Richardson will be healthier, and Lanning will be given the chance to show what he can do. The Cyclones have the other pieces to field an effective offense. But that won’t happen unless somebody -- finally -- emerges as the answer at quarterback.
Key midterm enrollee: Defensively, the Cyclones face the difficult task of replacing key starters Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield at safety. Washington was a three-year starter and second-team All-Big 12 selection. Broomfield was a two-year starter. To help compensate, the Cyclones signed two junior college safeties, including Devron Moore, who is already on campus. Moore had offers from TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia, and was rated the No. 6 juco safety in the country. With few other options at safety, the Cyclones really need Moore to nail down a starting job before the end of the spring.
Question that could be answered: Mangino has a proven track record in the Big 12. He called plays for Oklahoma’s national championship team in 2000. His Kansas team won the Orange Bowl in 2007 behind a prolific offense. The Cyclones -- and Mangino -- should have a good idea coming out of the spring what the offense will look like in Ames in 2014.
Question that won’t be answered until fall: While the rest of the offense returns largely intact, the quarterback question could linger for awhile. Mangino might want more than just the spring before determining a starter. Rohach and Richardson have yet to distinguish themselves from one another, and it’s hard to believe either will accomplish that in one spring with a new offense.