Spring offers evaluation opportunities for Iowa State players, dress rehearsal for new play-caller

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AMES – Iowa State opened its 2023 spring football practice season Thursday not only with a goal of getting its players positioned for the fall but also its rookie play-caller.

New Iowa State offensive coordinator Nate Scheelhaase will take his first stab at dictating the Cyclones’ offense over the next six weeks as he and Iowa State look to move on from a disastrous 2022 season for the unit.

The goals, Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell said, are quite intertwined.

“Sometimes you say, ‘Hey this is the situation.’ It’s easy to be able to play in that (manufactured scenario),” Campbell said, “but that’s not how the game gets played.

“Creating those almost game-like situations as much as you can within the health and safety of the team, you try to do that as much as you possibly can to give those guys the opportunity – the play-caller the opportunity and the kids the opportunity to be evaluated in those situations.”

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Iowa State begins its march to the fall on the heels of a 4-8 campaign that marked the first time that the program failed to reach .500 and a bowl game since Campbell’s first season in 2015. Much of the blame can lie with an offense that was the Big 12’s worst and one of the most unproductive in the country.

That led to the ouster of coordinator Tom Manning and the promotion of Scheelhaase, who had been the running backs and wide receivers coach.

Scheelhaase, a former quarterback at Illinois, has drawn universal praise from within the Bergstrom Football Complex but has not called plays as a coach. Putting him in game-like situations will be perhaps just as beneficial as Campbell putting his young team in those situations to execute Scheelhaase’s calls.

“You certainly take that into thought,” Campbell said. “Anytime we’ve tried to usher in a new play-caller, you want to try to create as many (game) situations but I also think it also mends into a young team.”

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Essentially, spring can serve as an evaluation tool for players and a dress rehearsal for their offensive coordinator.

“You get these opportunities in spring practice to really dive into what that will look like for us as an offense,” Scheelhaase said in February. “Those are good opportunities to sit back and figure the best way we’re going to go about that. The best way I’m going to feel comfortable in a gameday environment to be able to do that.

“You’re not getting out there in September and saying, ‘Let’s try this today.’”

Scheelhaase won’t have his full cadre of playmakers this spring. Top running backs Jirehl Brock and Cartevious Norton are limited due to injury, along with tight end DeShawn Hanika and offensive linemen Jarod Hufford and Tyler Miller.

Defensively, defensive back Jeremiah Cooper and defensive lineman Isaiah Lee will be limited in their participation.

Their partial absences will make for even greater competition throughout Iowa State’s 15 practices, culminating with the spring game on April 22.

“There is so much unknown about this team in a lot of ways in terms of who can consistently play at the expectation and standard for us to be our best?” Campbell said. “I really don’t know if you’ll know what this team really looks like and who is stepping on the field early on the season until we get midway through fall camp.

“That’s the exciting part because you get to really build this team and give it a slow build-up until the early, mid-point of fall camp.”

That construction for the offense includes both an elemental re-evaluation and a double-down on what previously was successful.

“The scheme is not the challenge,” Campbell said. “The consistency and the 'how' is really where we dove into. Even 'how do you call a play?' How do we make sure we give the quarterback the time to dissect the play and be at his best?

“The global ‘how’ is the most important thing offensively – how we do what we do. That piece of it will lead to a greater consistency on the offensive side of the football.”

Travis Hines covers Iowa State University sports for the Des Moines Register and Ames Tribune. Contact him at thines@amestrib.com or (515) 284-8000. Follow him at @TravisHines21.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Cyclones to use spring practice for 'game-like' reps