By Rob Gray
AMES — Each snippet of game tape makes Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham wince.
And he’s not watching footage of TCU quarterback Casey Pachall, or Oklahoma State’s potent playcallers J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf.
It’s moving images of Northern Iowa sophomore quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen that draw high praise — and a we’d-better-be-ready look — from Burnham, whose young unit must devise ways to bother the productive pro-style passer in Saturday’s 7 p.m. season opener against the FCS top 15-ranked Panthers at Jack Trice Stadium.
“I think he’s a really, really good football player,” said Burnham, whose seen his share in 40-plus years of coaching, including stints at Florida State and South Carolina. “I think he’s one of the better quarterbacks we’ll see.”
Burnham’s not prone to hyperbole.
In Kollmorgen, he sees a quarterback who “can make all the throws.”
“The ball comes out of his hand hot,” Burnham said. “It’s spinning. He can throw it downfield on the fade routes, the take-off routes, whatever you’re going to call them. He throws the crossing routes, underneath routes. He’s got great timing. He sets up the screens real well. He can be on one hash and literally throw it to the other sideline with the guy standing right on the boundary, catching the ball.”
One of those guys could be running back David Johnson — especially with big-play receiver Brett LeMaster out for the season because of a recent injury.
Johnson’s versatility and all-around game also has Burnham and others clad in cardinal and gold on high alert.
“They have weapons,” ISU linebacker Jeremiah George said.
Johnson proved that as a sophomore, nearly dooming the Cyclones to a season-opening loss in 2011 by turning a wheel route into an 80-yard touchdown.
That gave the Panthers a 19-14 lead with 4:17 remaining.
If then-Cyclone quarterback Steele Jantz doesn’t respond by hitting former junior college teammate Aaron Horne for a 32-yard gain, which set up his touchdown plunge with 40 seconds left, ISU’s bowl-worthy season could have been in tatters.
So, yes, Johnson’s a primary point of emphasis.
“An outstanding football player who’s really come on strong last season heading into this season,” ISU coach Paul Rhoads said of Johnson, who’s scored eight of his 30 career touchdowns through the air. “We looked very aggressively at him coming out of high school and know the talent he possesses.”
Burnham’s impressions of Johnson mirror those he has of Kollmorgen.
“He runs behind his pads and it’s hard to get a good tackle, a good lick on him to stop his forward progress,” Burnham said.
That’s also a concern, given the Cyclones are slated to field at least six first-time starters Saturday on defense.“We’ve had a bunch of high moments in camp, when you don’t have to lean on each other as much,” George, a senior captain, said. “But during those low moments, which, we’ve had a few, guys really lean on each other and they pick each other up. So I know there may be some high moments in this game and there may be some low moments. That’s what I’m going to look back on: Camp, and how we got through it at that time, which was a very grueling time — and how we’re going to do it in (this) game.”