By Rob Gray
AMES — Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads is on the road recruiting.
His program’s searching for a new offensive coordinator, after Sunday’s announced firing of Courtney Messingham.
And for the second time in four years, his players don’t have 15 practices of bowl preparation to look forward to — and the subsequent payoff of postseason play.
“What you lose is practice with the really young guys,” Rhoads, whose team finished 3-9, said last week. “And what we’ve tried to do in the last couple weeks is make up for it. We’ve tried to do some things practice-wise with them at the end of practice.”
Now it’s Cyclones strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight’s turn.
ISU will soon enter the grueling “winter prep cycle” — an extra building phase based on sound science and hard work.
Very, very hard work.
“That’s one thing we hang over their head,” McKnight said last summer. “We don’t want to be in that cycle, ever.”
Such is life when you don’t make a bowl for the second time in five seasons under Rhoads.
Such is life when for the first time in those five seasons — despite a multi-game winning streak to end the season for the first time since 2000 — at least five wins weren’t attained.
But all is not lost.
That five-win season, in 2010, preceded a winter prep cycle that helped produce a memorable 2011 campaign that included the still-noteworthy Friday night upset of then-national championship contender Oklahoma State and a Pinstripe Bowl berth.
Can a similar —or more striking — resurgence come in 2014?
The Cyclones are firmly convinced that it will.
“Knowing what we could have done during the season, especially looking back at our close losses, it will propel us even more,” junior defensive end Cory Morrissey said last week.
Those close losses — five by a combined 26 points — stung, but so did massive blowouts at the hands of Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma.
The reality is 3-9. No bowl. Plenty of hope for the future, but little else to hang the helmets on.
“You look at this season and you learn from it,” senior linebacker and NFL hopeful Jeremiah George said recently. “You learn what not to do. There were mistakes made at the top level, at the level of players, and it’s something that you have to take a step back and learn from, because nobody’s perfect. We’re all going to make mistakes. Not repeating those mistakes makes it better.”
George will watch from afar as ISU tries to return to bowl eligibility behind rapidly developing players such as quarterback Grant Rohach, receiver Quenton Bundrage, Morrissey, cornerback Nigel Tribune, and surgically-repaired linebacker Luke Knott.
Rohach closed the season with his first consecutive 300-yard passing games — and earned Big 12 offensive player of the week honors for his efforts in the 52-44 triple-overtime comeback win at West Virginia.
Bundrage tied Todd Blythe’s single-season touchdown receptions mark with nine.
Morrissey recovered a team-best three fumbles and tied for second in sacks with two.
“We’ve just got to keep learning,” Morrissey said.
ISU will return 10 starters on offense — not to mention transfer wide receiver DeVario Montgomery — and seven on defense.
Rhoads said up to six junior college players could be targeted to augment a class of 2014 that already includes highly-starred verbal commitments such as receiver Allen Lazard and running back Tommy Mister.
“You’re not recruiting junior college players to provide depth,” Rhoads said. “Whether they come in and learn the system’s up to them, but you’re bringing them in to play.”
Then there’s defensive tackle Rodney Coe, running backs Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy and a fully in tact (if healthy) offensive line returning.
Again, plenty of hope and promise, all of which needs to be fully tapped to make 3-9 dissolve into the distance, becoming an aberration instead of a sign of things to come.“The future’s bright,” Rhoads said. “I’m excited about the future.”