No. 21 Iowa St looks to its offensive line as strength

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              FILE - In this Aug. 2, 2019, file photo, Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy hands the ball off to running back Kene Nwangwu, left, during an NCAA college football practice in Ames, Iowa. The Cyclones’ search to replace departed star David Montgomery has been the dominant story line of fall camp, with senior Sheldon Croney, Jr., junior Kene Nwangwu, sophomore Johnnie Lang and freshmen Jirehl Brock and Breece Hall all competing for playing time starting with the opener on August 31 against Northern Iowa.(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
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AMES, Iowa (AP) — From the day he arrived at Iowa State three years ago, Matt Campbell talked about the need to build a dominant, physical offensive line.

Now, finally, the Cyclones appear to have a group close to what their coach has been seeking.

But they still have to prove it on the field.

“It’s a veteran group,” Campbell said Tuesday. “I want them to act like veterans and play like veterans.”

Tackles Julian Good-Jones and Bryce Meeker, guards Collin Olson and Josh Knipfel and center Colin Newell have combined to start 114 games at Iowa State. Newell is a sophomore, the rest are seniors.

Only four Bowl Subdivision teams have a unit with more combined starts: Oregon (153), Wake Forest (131), Louisiana-Monroe (130) and Texas Tech (116).

Experience is only part of it, of course, but Campbell does say this is the best group the 21st-ranked Cyclones have had during his tenure going into the season, which starts Saturday at home against Northern Iowa. That comes with a caveat, though.

“I wish we had a better standard to go back on,” he said. “You’re talking the last three years, it’s certainly been the greatest growth we’ve had to make in our program.”

Indeed, the offensive line has taken its share of knocks recently. That’s why this year seems so different. The line actually is seen as a strength.

“It’s kind of like, we really don’t know what to do because we’ve always kind of been the group that oh, what about them? We don’t know,” said Good-Jones, who has started every game of his career except the opener his freshman season. “Now it’s kind of the other way around. It’s weird. We’re just kind of rolling with it. We just go day by day and don’t take it any different.”

More is expected of the line this year following the departure of running back David Montgomery to the NFL. Montgomery rushed for 2,362 yards over the last two seasons and excelled at breaking tackles. Yet as good as he was, there were times he had no room to run and was stopped for little or no gain.

As many as five running backs could work into the rotation this year and while all are capable, the staff is still trying to sort out who might be the best.

“I always say David Montgomery was the perfect running back for Iowa State,” Campbell said. “David didn’t need many blockers. You just had to get in people’s way and give him a chance to get started and good things could happen. Thank goodness we had David because if we didn’t, I think that would have been a great challenge to hand the ball off to somebody and have success.”

In other words, this group of running backs needs blocking.

“I think it’s (right) to put the load on us and hold us accountable,” Good-Jones said. “Just to have everyone put their trust in us and know we’re going to do our job and kind of lead the way for those young guys.”

The offensive line also has developed a camaraderie that Good-Jones found lacking early in his career. They hang out together most of the time, often at Meeker’s place to play cards, watch games or just relax. Earlier this summer, they spent time together at the Newell family’s cabin on Ten Mile Lake in Minnesota.

There’s also more competition for playing time, even with a veteran group. Good-Jones said his backup, redshirt freshman Joe Ramos, is the most talented college offensive lineman he has ever seen in person. The backups also include Sean Foster, who has started seven times in his career, and redshirt freshman Trevor Downing, who arrived with sterling high school credentials.

That competition is as important to Campbell as experience. Without it, he said, players often don’t develop.

“If you’re resting on your laurels, if you’re just coming to practice and getting through it, it’s really hard to get better as a football player,” he said. “Our sport, especially the offensive line, is such a craft. You have to perform at such a high rate to maximize your full potential.”