ABOVE THE NOISE: Cyclones seek shot at CFP, Miller awaits breakthrough
By BRANDON HURLEY
Sky-high expectations are a rare commodity in Ames.
Though a top 10 preseason ranking is a bit lofty for some, Iowa State’s understandably confident football team returns 19 of a possible 22 starters this fall, well-deserving of their status among the nation’s elite.
The Cyclones are rated eighth in the USA Today coaches poll released Tuesday, which marks one of ISU’s highest preseason rankings in history.
A nine win squad fresh off a convincing Fiesta Bowl certainly warrants a throng of expectations, especially for a unit poised for another shot at the Big 12 crown and a potential run at the College Football Playoff.
Fans and players are fired up and ready to pounce.
Many eyes will be zeroed in on ISU this fall, though it’s nothing head coach Matt Campbell believes his guys aren’t prepared for, he said during a media day press conference Monday morning. They Cyclones have committed years of hard work for a chance to insert themselves among the nation’s elite. That notion is vital, Campbell said. The players and coaching staff must stay the course if they want to take another step, relying on their muscle memories and the dedication to better one’s self.
“I don’t think much has changed about our program. The reality of who we are isn’t very different than who we were. It’s not going to get any easier,” Campbell said. “How we do what we do is still really challenging. We have to be an elite team. The process we take to be the best version of us is really hard. We play team football, (we) have to do the little things well to still win football games.”
Despite all the momentum of a blossoming Division I program, a former, high profile Greene County athlete awaits his time to shine.
Former Ram all-state lineman Tyler Miller begins the 2021 campaign as a full scholarship, redshirt freshman itching for a chance to burst his way into the lineup.
Though Miller may see limited action this fall in the Cardinal and Gold, he’ll have a front row seat to potentially witness more history. The second-year college athlete was on the sidelines for last year’s historic run which saw the Cyclones nearly win the Big 12 title game before thumping Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, completing a nine win season, the most single-season victories in school history.
Miller is currently listed at 6-9 and 320 pounds, having put on at least 20 pounds of muscle since graduating high school early following the fall semester in 2019.
Miller was the anchor for a Greene County offensive line which helped power the Rams to a combined 17-4 record over the final two years of his prep career, which included the consolidated school district’s first-ever playoff victory in 2019. The Rams shattered several offensive school records during that 9-2 campaign, compiling 4,188 total yards thanks to a record 2,403 passing yards and 1,785 rushing yards. Miller was rated as the eighth-best 2020 prospect in the state by 24/7 Sports.
The offensive tackle has yet to see the field as an ISU Cyclone and sits behind a strong group of athletes. Sean Foster (Left tackle) and Jake Remsburg (RT) are returning starters from a year ago. Remsburg stands in at 6-06 and 330 pounds while Foster is 6-08 and 325 pounds.
Miler possesses more height than both and is bigger in size than Foster, which could bode well for the future. Unfortunately, Remsburg is only a sophomore though Foster is a fifth-year senior, potentially opening things up for Miller.
Without directly addressing Miller and others who haven’t yet seen the field, Campbell holds a strong belief in seizing the moment. When the former Ram finally gets his chance, with his size and speed, he certainly can make an immediate impact, one that quite possibly could lead to consistent appearances on the gridiron.
“College football is about the moments in terms of playing time. You’re going to get your shot,” Campbell said. “The guys who have taken advantage of the moment, the shot are the ones who have really flourished.
You look at guys like Brock (Purdy) and Breece (Hall) who played early in their careers, they maximized their moments and opportunity when it came.”
Miller was not made available for comment during Monday’s media day activities in Ames, which were limited due to increasing COVID-19 related protocols. Campbell only spoke during his press conference and was not available for questions following the engagement.
As a whole, Iowa State’s offense should be quite the juggernaut this fall, returning the likes of three-year starter Brock Purdy at quarterback and potential Heisman Trophy candidate Breece Hall at running back. The Cyclones averaged 441 yards per game last season, which included 249 yards passing and 192 yards rushing per contest, powering one of the most balanced units in the country. ISU averaged 32.8 points per game as well.
Purdy’s 2,750 yards passing were the second most in the Big 12 while Hall led the league in rushing with 1,572 yards in addition to his top mark of 21 rushing touchdowns, 11 more than the runner-up, TCU quarterback Max Duggan (10). Xavier Hutchinson is back again after finishing second in the conference in receiving yards (771) and eighth in receiving touchdowns (4).
The top seven in front of Iowa State in the USA Today coaches poll is a list of blue bloods, which includes No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 5 Georgia, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 2 Clemson and 2021 National Champion Alabama as the preseason favorite at No. 1. North Carolina (No. 9) and Cincinnati (No. 10) sit behind ISU to round out the top 10. In-state rival Iowa, who visits Jack Trice Stadium on Sept. 11, is ranked 18th in the preseason poll.
To stay among the tradition-rich programs ahead of the Cyclones in the rankings, Iowa State must focus on the plays in the margins, Campbell said. Deviation can be quite detrimental when trying to deflect each opponent’s best shot, which can lead to mistakes on and off the field. The target is on the Cyclones now, unfamiliar territory for a program on the rise.
“As long as we continue to identify who we are, what allows us to be successful and not try to navigate far off that path, then we’ve given ourselves that opportunity,” Campbell said. “We’ve used that the last two years. Navigating who we are and what allows Iowa State to be successful, it’s not the same as school A, B and C of we compete against.
That’s where our growth has come and our confidence as well.”
Campbell did acknowledge the immense amount of pressure to succeed this year, though he also noted how winning depends on first achieving goals set by the team. True to his confident self many fans and supporters have come to appreciate over the years, the coach said it’s really not about the outside noise.
“Reach your full potential, whatever that is. College football is funny because anything can happen and all things can go haywire,” Campbell said. “There are so many unique challenges coming our way. If you can identify collectively and individually where we are and where we need to go, I think we can really navigate that storm rather than worrying about if it’s harder or easier.”
Iowa State opens the 2021 season at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 4 at home against the University of Northern Iowa. Big 12 Conference play begins Sept. 25 with a road trip to Baylor. The Big 12 Championship game is set for Saturday, Dec. 4.