Paul Rhoads inherited a team at Iowa State that had won five games in two seasons. Under his direction, the Cyclones won seven games in 2009, capped off by a win over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl. In part two of this two-part Q&A, Rhoads talks about his expectations for 2010 and how capable his team is of an encore.
Note: Parts of this interview were edited for length.
David Ubben: Moving onto this season, you’ve obviously got a lot to replace on defense. You guys don’t start practice until the 23rd, but what are you looking for out of the guys who have to step in?
Paul Rhoads: Continuous improvement. A year ago, we had one objective, and that was to improve on every facet of our program. As we move into this year, we want to focus on continuous improvement. The reason behind that, behind having something that simple is because we have that far to go. I don’t think that number objectives that important to us right now. “Well, let’s increase our benches by so much percentage or win this many more games or gain this many more yards or decrease what we give up.” If we just focus on continuously improving everything that we’re doing, class attendance, GPA, block/pass protection, rushing the passer. If we just focus on that, the little things, I know the end result of our program will continue to grow.
DU: Who do you want to get a good look at in the spring?
PR: Freshmen linebackers who will have to take over. Jake Knott and A.J. Klein both played this year as true freshmen, but now they’re going to have to step up in what should be starting roles. We have a couple of junior college linebackers. One, Jake Lattimer who played a little bit, and another one Matt Tau'fo'ou, who didn’t play at all. We have a freshmen group of secondary players and a junior college transfer in Anthony Young who are going to have to see a lot more time. I’m anxious to see them play, and a handful of receivers that are coming off redshirts that I’m anxious to see if they can give us more game-breaking ability at receiver.
DU: Back to Alexander Robinson. Did he surprise you at all last year, or were you well aware he was capable of putting up the type of numbers he did?
PR: We were very aware after we started spring practice. We saw him in the offseason, thought he moved pretty good, and then we got into spring practice and we thought we had, especially with what we do offensively, we thought we had somebody who was very capable of being successful in our offense.
DU: I assume you’re pretty committed to getting him the ball as much this year as last year?
PR: Very much so, and what we’d like to do even more so is get him the ball in the passing game. He’s a very capable receiver, and we’d like to see him thrown the ball more out of the backfield and down the field and so forth. We had a couple big passing plays with him, and we’d like to see him be more consistent.
DU: Are you looking at more creative ways of getting him the ball if defenses key in on him even more this year?
PR: I don’t know of anything more creative, we’re pretty creative right now in putting him out there in empty sets and bringing him back into the backfield. Moving him around the backfield from one side to the other. When you’re a one-back team, there isn’t a lot of doubt who in the backfield is going to get the ball. So we, as everybody does, tweak the offense a little bit right now this time of year and try to figure out some schemes that will work against teams that maybe have more physical ability than us and one of the objectives of the spread offense is to get the ball to your playmakers in space, and that’s what we’ll try to create.
DU: What is this year’s team capable of?
PR: I don’t know. But hopefully that’s something we’ll find out in spring practice and just see if we are a little bit better than we were a year ago, which we think we will be, and our physical skills will be different, but you’ve got guys that have played the game. We’re graduating five linebackers that all played defensively or special teams or both, and when you’re replacing those kinds of numbers, not just at one position but at other positions, you should be a little bit nervous. So we are, but we’ll attack spring practice and we’ll get our incoming class in this fall and see how things pan out during fall camp, and then I’ll be better able to see how capable we are.
As much as people thought we overachieved or had a favorable schedule, or things that they don’t think we repeat in 2010, I think we’re capable of that. I think potentially we’ll be better everywhere you look. I think our quarterback play was average and they return. If we’re coaching and guys are responding to coaching, then a year more means a year better of performance. And I think that will be reflected by our football team. The schedule certainly is more challenging than it was a year ago, so we could be better -- we could be significantly better -- and not have more wins or as many wins and that still be the truth.