Big 12: Nate Frere
Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads' emotion-laced locker room reaction to his team’s upset over Nebraska has been a YouTube staple with more than 224,000 hits as of Wednesday afternoon.
For fans of college football, Rhoads’ show of emotion was refreshing -- a throwback to the good ol’ days when coaches were worried more about bonding with their teams than their next television appearance or tee time.
Rhoads’ show of emotion was genuine. And in much the same way, the overachieving Cyclones and their bowl appearance in his first season was the feel-good story of the Big 12 this season.
When he arrived at the school last spring, Rhoads was so appalled by the team’s techniques that he ordered a compulsory lesson in tackling fundamentals for all team members.
The Cyclones employed a tough running game keyed by Alexander Robinson to serve as most of their offense. The defense struggled stopping opponents who passed and didn’t notch many sacks, but most certainly knew how to tackle. ISU ranked 27th nationally in turnover margin.
ISU’s 6-6 season record, in a way, was done with mirrors. The Cyclones beat only one team with a winning record and that Nebraska victory was fueled by eight turnovers. The six teams that ISU beat this season have a combined win-loss record of 29-42.
But considering the Cyclones haven’t gone bowling since 2005, not many Cyclone fans are complaining about their trip to the Insight Bowl later this month.
Offensive MVP: RB Alexander Robinson
Thought that new offensive coordinator Tom Herman would turn the Cyclones into a wild passing team were dispelled because of the emergence of Robinson, who ran for 1,058 yards and six touchdowns to rank third in rushing in the Big 12. Robinson’s numbers are even more impressive considering his missed nearly two full games because of injuries.
Defensive MVP: LB Jesse Smith
No player better epitomized the overachieving nature of the Cyclones’ plucky defense than the 6-foot, 234-pound senior who led the Big 12 in tackles (10.8 per game) and notched nine double-digit games this season. Smith’s performance against Nebraska -- 12 tackles, two tackles for losses, a forced fumble and the game-clinching interception -- earned him the Walter Camp National Player of the Week honors.
Turning point: Oct 24 at Nebraska
The Cyclones’ 9-7 victory at Nebraska ultimately earned them a bowl appearance. And it the process, the Cyclones forced eight turnovers to win in Lincoln for the first time since 1977. Iowa State showed grit by playing the game without Alexander Robinson and starting quarterback Austen Arnaud, breaking a 14-game road Big 12 losing streak. It showed that the Cyclones can compete with the Big 12 North Division’s best and overcome much adversity along the way.
The Cyclones will revel in their bowl trip to Tempe where they will hook up with old rival Minnesota. A win would be huge to enable the Cyclones to finish with a winning record. Robinson, Arnaud, Darius Darks all will be back for next season. But the defense loses seven starters including key producers Nate Frere, Jesse Smith and James Smith. And the schedule will get much tougher with nonconference games against Utah and Northern Illinois and a switch in Big 12 opponents to Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech from Baylor, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. It might be wise for the Cyclones and their fans to savor the bowl trip while they can.
All ISU coach Paul Rhoads has to do is think back to his first few workouts this spring to remember how much improvement the Cyclones have made this season.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Rhoads said. “We had our first practice in pads during spring ball and our tackling was so bad and our desire to tackle was so far off it left us scared. There were a lot of ghosts in that practice.”
From that point to now, the change is dramatic. The Cyclones finished off a 17-10 victory over Colorado last week where the defense allowed only three points on three possessions inside the Cyclones’ 10-yard line.
That stinginess has helped the Cyclones post a surprising 6-5 record. The turnaround has made them bowl eligible for the first time since 2005 heading into Saturday’s game at Missouri.
“It’s really a great feeling to be part of that kind of turnaround,” senior nose guard Nate Frere said.
If he needs any reminders, Frere just has to go back earlier in spring practice.
Rhoads and his staff were so stunned by the Cyclones’ shoddy fundamentals that they broke down defensive football to its bare essentials.
The first lesson was teaching the team proper form, tackling techniques and how not to shirk from contact.
“They taught us to bend your knees and not being afraid to go out and make a play,” senior linebacker Jesse Smith said. “We went to the basics, but the coaches did a good job of teaching us to learn those fundamentals all over again.”
Some teams might have embarrassed from that kind of remedial attention. But the Cyclones’ defense bonded from that work and was intent on improving from that point forward under veteran coordinator Wally Burnham.
“I think a lot of guys kind of thought we learned that stuff when we were playing in pee-wee leagues,” Frere said. “But when we saw what they were trying to teach us and then bought into it, we learned we weren’t doing some of those small things right. There was a little bit of resistance at the beginning but we grew from there.”
The work obviously has helped, particularly as the unit grew more comfortable after playing several games together.
They have held three Big 12 opponents to 10 points or fewer, including a breakthrough victory at Nebraska. The Cyclones forced eight turnovers en route to a gritty 9-7 victory that snapped a 15-game losing streak at Lincoln.
The Cyclones are allowing 403 yards per game to rank 92nd nationally in total defense and 106th in sacks. But they have a knack of getting stronger playing closer to their end zone that has grown during conference play as head into their .
“I think we're 11th in the conference in total defense, and that's nothing to wave the flag about,” Rhoads said. “But when you turn the ball over in the red zone and you can keep people out of your end zone, you've got a chance to play and win in any football game.”
The Colorado victory added to that. The Buffaloes gashed them for 390 yards, but the Cyclones kept making big plays deep in their own territory to limit Colorado’s scoring.
The defense had a fourth-and-goal stop on the Iowa State 1-yard line, two sacks, one interception and a fumble recovery to spark the victory.
“I think that game speaks to their growth,” Rhoads said. “They have done a fantastic job. We don’t intimidate or scare anybody, but we’ve done a great job of keeping points off the board.”
The Cyclones have reveled in that mentality throughout the season. Smith, a 6-foot, 234-pounder has developed into the Big 12’s leading tackler with an average of 10.6 stops per game.
“If you size up against a bunch of other teams, we might not have the height or speed, but we definitely have the football sense and the heart to play college football,” Smith said. “That’s more important than speed or size and it’s what this team has a lot of.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Don't accuse Iowa State nose guard Nate Frere of setting his aspirations low.
Frere told the Des Moines Register at the Cyclones' annual media day that his goal is to limit opponents to 20 points or less.
Considering that the Cyclones allowed conference opponents 41.8 points per game last season, that sounds like an difficult goal to achieve.
"I know 20 points sounds like a lot," Frere told the Register. "You always want to give up zero, but in the Big 12, there's a lot of high-powered teams with a lot of weapons.
"Everybody's going to score points in the Big 12. That's the way it is. We just can't let them score as many against us as they did last year."
Allowing 20 points has traditionally been a benchmark across the conference. Here's Iowa State's record in games where the Cyclones allowed 20 points or less in the history of the Big 12.
Under Dan McCarney, the Cyclones posted a 35-6 in games where opponents were limited to 20 points or less for a winning percentage of .854. ISU wasn't nearly as successful in the last two seasons under Gene Chizik, when the Cyclones posted a 3-2 record in games where opponents were limited to 20 points or less for a .600 winning percentage.
But with scoring as prevalent as it was in the Big 12 last season, 20 points was a special benchmark. Big 12 teams were 44-3 in games where opponents were limited to 20 points or less in 2008. The only games where Big 12 teams lost allowing 20 points or less included were Texas A&M's 18-14 loss to Arkansas State, Kansas State's 14-13 loss to Colorado and Iowa State's 17-5 loss to Iowa.
Here's a record for Big 12 teams in 2008 where they allowed opponents to 20 points or less.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
IRVING, Texas -- Wounds from former Iowa State coach Gene Chizik's abrupt departure from Iowa State still haven't healed among his old players.
Iowa State nose guard Nate Frere said he first learned about Chizik's leaving for the Auburn job after watching television and listening to radio reports.
And he was disappointed after learning about his former coach's departure.
"When someone says they're going to stay and then you have to learn from the media that they're leaving -- and then they come in after the fact and say something -- you kind of feel a little bit cheated," Frere said.
Even though he didn't learn about Chizik's departure directly through his old coach, Frere joked that he could have tried.
"Twitter wasn't as big as it is now," Frere said, chuckling. "He could have shot me a Facebook message or hit me up on MySpace."
New ISU coach Paul Rhoads appears to have a different attitude with his new team, which has aided the transition.
"Chizik is where he wants to be, Rhoads is where he wants to be and I'm still here where I want to be," Frere said.
Rhoads decided to spend Monday morning back in Ames for a short period before leaving for media days.
"I figured my staff and I could use the time better if I stayed around for a little while," said Rhoads, who spent much of his time before leaving writing personal notes to potential Cyclone recruits.
The strategy bit Rhoads because bad weather kept them from leaving Ames on time. The Cyclones arrived about three hours late and were Monday's final presenters.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
IRVING, Texas -- Welcome to the Big 12 media days, the annual gathering of all the teams, coaches and major players over the next three days. We'll be kicking things off at about 2 p.m. ET Monday at the Westin Hotel.
Nebraska, Texas A&M, Iowa State and Oklahoma State will appear today. All of the coaches' press conferences will be available on ESPNews and at Big12sports.com. Nebraska's Bo Pelini will be the first at the dais at 2 p.m.
Here's a look at what I'm interested in learning from the coaches today. All times are Eastern.
Nebraska (2 p.m. - 2:45 p.m.) I'll be curious what Pelini thinks about Zac Lee and his quarterbacking situation heading into fall practice. I'm also curious what Pelini's opinion is on the growing groundswell for his team as the potential North Division favorite. And I'm also looking forward to talking to Ndamukong Suh, the conference's best defensive player coming into the season.
Oklahoma State (2:45 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.) There's more preseason buzz around the Cowboys than at any time in perhaps the history of the school. OSU is a fashionable top-10 preseason pick because of its explosive offense. But I'm more interested in what coach Mike Gundy and linebacker Andre Sexton have to say about the Cowboys' retooled defense under new coordinator Bill Young. Because that ultimately will determine whether the Cowboys are legitimate BCS contenders or not.
Iowa State (3:30 p.m. - 4:15 p.m.) New ISU coach Paul Rhoads will make his first appearance at a large media gathering when he visits today. I've been very impressed with Rhoads in the brief encounters I've had with him. It will be interesting to see how he plays to the crowd. And it will also be interesting to see what ISU players Austen Arnaud, Nate Frere and Reggie Stephens have to say about climbing out of the Big 12 North cellar.
Texas A&M (4:15 p.m. - 5 p.m.) Expectations are down at Texas A&M more than at any time in recent memory. Does coach Mike Sherman have a plan to return the Aggies to respectability? He's brought quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who will be questioned about a looming battle for his starting job with Ryan Tannehill. And safety Trent Hunter and defensive tackle Lucas Patterson will talk about the challenge of returning the "Wrecking Crew" to Texas A&M's offense.
It should be interesting. Stay tuned to the blog for updates throughout the afternoon.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
The Big 12 announced most of the players who will be attending the conference's annual media days, beginning next Monday in Arlington, Texas.
One interesting trend this season is that several coaches are planning to bring assistant coaches with them. Baylor coach Art Briles will be joined by defensive coordinator Brian Norwood, Colorado coach Dan Hawkins will be assisted at the proceedings by veteran linebackers coach Brian Cabral and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy will be joined by cornerbacks coach Jason Jones.
Here's a look at the daily breakdown of teams and who will be attending to represent each school.
Monday July 27
- Nebraska: Coach Bo Pelini, RB Roy Helu Jr., C Jacob Hickman, DT Ndamukong Suh.
- Oklahoma State: Coach Mike Gundy, cornerbacks coach Jason Jones, QB Zac Robinson, LB Andre Sexton, WR Dez Bryant.
- Iowa State: Coach Paul Rhoads; QB Austen Arnaud, G Reggie Stephens, NG Nate Frere.
- Texas A&M: Coach Mike Sherman, players to be announced.
Tuesday July 28
- Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel, LB Sean Weatherspoon, NT Jaron Baston, G Kurtis Gregory.
- Baylor: Coach Art Briles, defensive coordinator Brian Norwood, QB Robert Griffin, S Jordan Lake, LB Joe Pawelek, C J.D. Walton.
- Kansas: Coach Mark Mangino, QB Todd Reesing, WR Kerry Meier, DE Max Onyegbule.
- Oklahoma: Coach Bob Stoops, QB Sam Bradford; DT Gerald McCoy, TE Jermaine Gresham.
Wednesday July 29
- Kansas State: Coach Bill Snyder, players to be announced.
- Texas Tech: Coach Mike Leach, T Brandon Carter, CB Jamar Wall, DT Colby Whitlock.
- Colorado: Coach Dan Hawkins, linebackers coach Brian Cabral, TE Riar Geer, LB Marcus Burton, LB Jeff Smart.
- Texas: Coach Mack Brown, players to be announced.
It looks like we were able to get most of the players with compelling story lines. I expect Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson both to make appearances for their respective schools, as well.
Just curious if any of you have any specific questions you'd like me to ask the players.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Iowa State defensive players know they didn't play well last season.
|Charles LeClaire/Getty Images|
|Paul Rhoads hopes to turn things around at Iowa State.|
That realization, along with the arrival of defensive-minded head coach Paul Rhoads, has ratcheted up competition for the Cyclones' beleaguered unit in hopes of improving this spring.
"Speaking personally, I have a huge chip on my shoulder after last year," senior nose guard Nate Frere said. "I think we have a lot to prove. We didn't play well. We didn't tackle well. And that's the bottom line."
The Cyclones finished the season with a 10-game losing streak that dropped them to 2-10, including eight straight losses in Big 12 play. The Cyclones allowed at least 28 points in every Big 12 game, including at least 35 points in all but one conference game.
The ISU defense ranked among the bottom 10 units nationally in scoring defense (tied for 110th), total defense (112th), pass defense (116th) and pass efficiency defense (117th). That gives Iowa State a lot of room for improvement this spring.
It's led Rhoads, who arrived at ISU after serving as the defensive coordinator at Auburn, to take a back-to-the-basics approach as he attempts to rejuvenate the defense as his first task in his transformation of the program.
That's why the Cyclones have been involved in simple tackling drills from the first day of spring practice. They are working on their balance and technique as well as the proper way to deliver forearm shivers and ankle stops.
Some teams might have been embarrassed with such a simplistic approach. But it's what Rhoads believes his defense needs to improve its fundamentals and tackling.
"Defensively, we lag behind where we are offensively," Rhoads said. "They know they gave up a lot of points, they know they gave up a lot of yards and they know they didn't tackle well. And that's where you have to start."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
The season begins a week from tonight for Iowa State, which will open against South Dakota State to open Coach Gene Chizik's second season.
The Cyclones return seven offensive and seven defensive starters from last season's 3-9 team as they attempt to qualify for their first bowl since the 2005 Houston Bowl under former coach Dan McCarney.
Heading into the final week of practice, here's five major questions that Chizik needs to settle to get his team for the upcoming season.
1. Settle on a quarterback. Austen Arnaud and Phillip Bates are hooked up in a tight battle. Chizik has said he expects both quarterbacks will play early in the season. The sooner he can settle on a starter, the better.
2. Find a featured running back. The Cyclones have a deep collection of similarly skilled players with J.J. Bass, Alexander Robinson and Jason Scales all back from last season. Look for all of them to play.
3. Develop playmakers at linebacker. Losing Alvin "Ace" Bowen and Jon Banks robbed the Cyclones of two of their primary defenders from last season. Michael Bibbs, Fred Garrin and Jesse Smith appeared poised to claim the starting positions.
4. Get some run-stuffers in the trenches. Not having Ahtyba Rubin and Bryce Braaksma will be huge losses. But former Arkansas transfer Michael Tate and 308-pound junior NG Nate Frere have emerged as the likely starters.
5. Who will replaces Bret Culbertson at kicker? Freshman Grant Mahoney was slated to be the kicker and 6-foot-4, 169-pound freshman Zach Guyer is set for kickoffs in the opener. But Chizik still could switch them around over the next few days.