Under coach Paul Rhoads, Iowa State has returned to respectability the last five years, as the Cyclones have made three bowl appearances. Now, armed with an offensive coordinator with a proven track record to go along with the deepest and most talented offensive roster Iowa State has had in years, Rhoads is hoping his program can break through to another level in 2014.
As spring practice began for the Cyclones this week, Rhoads took time to speak with ESPN.com about new offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, the significance of signing blue-chip wide receiver Allen Lazard and how the death of defensive line coach Curtis Bray in January has made an impact on himself and the program:
How did you settle on bringing in Mark Mangino as your offensive coordinator, and did you guys have a relationship previously before that?
Rhoads: Our previous relationship was this: one conversation at the 50-yard line when we traveled to play the Jayhawks in 2009. So we had had one conversation physically in person. I had one year of competing against him, knowing what he had accomplished both as a head coach and an assistant. I felt like he was an ideal fit for us, and that put him at the top of list. We were able to start conversations and we were successful in our recruitment of him.
In those conversations, what was it that validated that he was the guy you wanted to bring in?
Rhoads: He had been at programs that had not been traditionally rich programs, and he had had success both as a position coach and a coordinator. In my opinion, he had a track record of doing more with less and overachieving. As a play-caller, he won a national championship at Oklahoma. And at Kansas, his teams were known for -- and I saw it first-hand -- their physical toughness and ability to play hard. I knew that going in. What I wanted to find out from those first conversations was his motivation to get that done at Iowa State. He had a detailed plan to why we could be successful. He was anxious for the challenge, and we’re excited we were able to get him in here in our system.
What has impressed you about him so far?
Rhoads: His organization and attention to detail. I have purposefully stayed out of his way. I’ve done that with coordinators throughout my time here. He’s got a new offense to put in. We have five new position coaches, four new on offense. He didn’t need me getting in his way. But I’ve had a close eye on what he’s been getting done, his itineraries, his installation plans, and it’s been a very smooth transition. He’s gotten a lot accomplished in a short amount of time. That was on display our first practice -- there were few busts as far as being lined up correctly or false starts. I got to see his attention to detail laid out on the field.
Rhoads: The execution of the offense displayed by the mental capacity and control of what we’re trying to accomplish. Mark has said with us being a no-huddle team, the coaches are going to do the heavy lifting. But the quarterback still has to make decisions at the line of scrimmage. We’re looking for the guy that separates that way first. And tied along with those mental decisions is leadership. The other 10 guys [had] better respond to him with great enthusiasm and precision with movement. The second thing would be throwing accuracy. We want a guy that can make all of the throws with great accuracy. The difficult, longer throws he won’t make as often, but we want him making some of those, and then all of the throws underneath. Lastly, we’ll be looking at production with their feet. We’re going to have designed runs, designed option reads. And when the pocket breaks down, can he pick something up on his own? We want a guy that can do that with productivity as well.
How would you compare the offensive talent you have right now to other teams you’ve had at Iowa State?
Rhoads: I think it’s our most talented group of offensive players that we’ve had here. The question we just talked about needs to get answered. We need somebody to lead the team at the quarterback position. But we got invaluable experience on the offensive line last year due to way too many injuries. We started nine different offensive lines due to injury. But we’ve got a lot of guys back who’ve gotten playing time and bring experience, led by our seniors, (center) Tom Farniok and (tackle) Jacob Gannon. That should be a positive for us. We’ve also got a potential All-American in (tight end) E.J. Bibbs. A potential all-league player in (receiver) Quenton Bundrage. And we have two very talented running backs in Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy.
How big was landing four-star receiver Allen Lazard, not only because of what he brings to the table skill-wise, but psychologically the message it sent about where the program is and the direction it’s headed?
Rhoads: It was a great victory. My comments got lost on signing day. But my point on signing day was that we won. They had nothing to do with how other people (notably Notre Dame and Iowa) recruited him. It was that Iowa State had won the competition for one of the nation’s best players. Especially coming off a hiccup year, it showed where the program is at, how it’s perceived in the state, if not nationally. It was a great victory in recruiting, and that leads to on-field success.
You mentioned last year being a “hiccup” season. What do you think it said about your team and your program that, down 17 in the last quarter of the last game, your team fights back to win at West Virginia in triple overtime with nothing more really than pride on the line?
Rhoads: Quite a bit is what it said. We had lost seven straight (before beating Kansas the previous week). We had no opportunity for postseason play. We were playing for seniors, for pride, and most importantly for the future. The kids never quit. Never quit in preparation. Never quit in their work. Never quit in the game. To go on the road and overcome that, to me, speaks to the entirety of the program. It’s something that has generated great energy going into 2014.
Other than last year, you guys have basically been a .500 team. You had the hiccup season in 2013 with all the youth and injures. But because of that you have way more depth and experience going into next season. What’s the key to breaking through to that next level as a program?
Rhoads: First, quarterback play. You can’t hide the importance of it. Then, some guys stepping up and playing at a level of accountability of productivity we haven’t seen in those five years of basically, .500-level play. It might be the development of that fourth- or fifth-year guy. It might be that younger, talented player. Whoever it is, we need a higher level from more guys like that than we’ve had in the past.
You mentioned quarterback play. You guys have gone through several different guys the last few years and really haven’t been able to find that guy. If you find that guy from this competition, that would seem to really give you leg up compared to what you’ve had to deal with the last few years, correct?
Rhoads: I don’t know if Grant (Rohach) will be our guy or not. I know this: We got arguably great quarterback play out of Grant our last two games. And because of that, we had team success. Whether he keeps that up or somebody plays better, getting that level of play out of the position is critical to being successful. It has been inconsistent for us over five years' time.
This last question is more of a difficult one. Losing Coach Bray so suddenly two months ago, how did that affect you, the program and the kids?
Rhoads: It impacts us every day still. You’re never prepared for that. My mother suffered from Alzheimer’s for over 10 years. When her time came, you were ready. Quite honestly, she immediately was in a better place. This happened over a period of two hours, when he was struggling and then he was gone. You don’t get answers to that one, whether you’re 18, 19 or 47. And time doesn’t slow down for you. You’ve got to keep moving. The kids have persevered, and the coaches have dealt with it in their own ways and pushed on and led. I think of his family daily. His wife was just in here with mine, walking as they do on a weekly basis. If I told you I wasn’t angry that he’s gone, I’d be lying to you.