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IF YOU ASK IOWA STATE COACH PAUL RHOADS TO TELL YOU THE unit that must excel in 2012 in order for the Cyclones to be successful, he's likely to throw a question back at you: "Can I name two?"
Rhoads is not trying to be coy. For Iowa State to reach its third bowl in four years, the quarterback play and the defensive line must improve dramatically. The duel for playing time behind center is between sophomore Jared Barnett and senior Steele Jantz. After Jantz started the first seven games in 2011, including a win over Iowa, Barnett replaced him during a loss to Texas A&M. Then Barnett started the next six games, leading the Cyclones to upsets of Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
This season the battle will continue. Says Rhoads, "Jared does a better job of managing the game and football team. Steele does a better job right now of making plays." Whoever wins the starting assignment will have weapons in junior running back James White (eight TDs in 2011) and senior wideouts Josh Lenz and Aaron Horne.
The defensive line has been a weakness for the Cyclones over the past three seasons in the pass-happy Big 12. Rhoads thinks he has better depth than in previous years and expects big seasons from senior noseguard Jake McDonough (4½ tackles for loss, two sacks in 2011) and sophomore defensive end David Irving (who saw spot work). "This year we think we have more bodies and more capability [at those positions]," says Rhoads.
Iowa State's strength remains at linebacker, with A.J. Klein, Big 12 Co--Defensive Player of the Year, and Jake Knott, a second-team selection. Behind them, the secondary has question marks, especially at strong safety, where Durrell Givens, a backup at free safety last year, takes over.
Rhoads knows that his program still has room to grow. "We are not there yet," he acknowledges. Iowa State has had three conference wins in each of Rhoads's three seasons. Think of this glass as half full. The Cyclones won't finish in the upper echelon of the conference in 2012, but as Oklahoma State and Texas Tech learned last season, you don't want to take them lightly.
COACH Paul Rhoads (4th year) 18--20 (9--16 in Big 12)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Courtney Messingham