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March 22, 2010
Paul Rhoads did what so many before him couldn't.
In his first year as Iowa State coach, Rhoads led the Cyclones to a winning season and a bowl victory. He was the first Cyclones coach since 1931 to post a winning record in his initial season.
Meanwhile, the Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota was just the third bowl win in school history.
After such a grandiose debut, which also included a victory over Nebraska, expectations may be rising in Ames.
So what does Rhoads do for an encore?
Well, aiming for back-to-back bowl wins for the first time in school history would be a worthy goal. Whether that's realistic may depend on how much progress is made this spring in shoring up a lackluster defense.
Here's a look at the Cyclones as they enter spring practice.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
The Cyclones allowed 16 sacks in 2009 and boasted a 1,000-yard rusher. That would indicate the offensive line is in good shape, especially with four starters returning. They helped pave the way for Robinson to gain 1,195 yards and become Iowa State's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. Arnaud, who will be a third-year starter this fall, twice has passed for more than 2,000 yards and is also a rushing threat. But he needs to cut down on his interceptions.
HELP IS NEEDED
Defensive line is a specific area of need. The Cyclones were vulnerable to the run and posted only 16 sacks in '09. No one on the roster had more than two sacks last season. But the defensive issues only start up front. All three starting linebackers have to be replaced. Iowa State also ranked 102nd nationally in pass defense and must replace two starters in the secondary.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
LB Jacob Lattimer: Fingers are crossed that he can play at anything approaching the level he showed in '08 at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, where he posted 26 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
DE Rashawn Parker: He made 28 consecutive starts before enduring a season-ending knee injury in an early season win over Army. A needy defensive line will be upgraded if can return to full speed.
CB Anthony Young: He is expected to immediately provide much-needed help in the secondary. Young was Palomar (Calif.) Community College's defensive MVP and an honorable mention junior college All-America last season after grabbing six interceptions and posting 57 tackles.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
WR Sedrick Johnson: In 2008, Johnson was the subject of a recruiting controversy between Iowa State and Texas A&M. It's time for him to prove he was worth all the trouble. So far, he has managed just 25 catches in two seasons, including a mere seven receptions a year ago. The Cyclones have some young receivers and brought in a couple of good prospects in the latest signing class. Johnson needs a strong spring to remind why he was the prize in that tug-of-war with the Aggies.
Every Iowan from Des Moines to Davenport knows that Iowa State needs to bolster a defense that ranked 11th in the Big 12 and 99th in the nation last season. Rhoads is a defense-minded coach who proved himself at Pittsburgh and Auburn. But coaches can only do so much. Capable players ultimately make the difference, and the hope in Ames is that transfers and new starters will step in and strengthen the defense. They need to make strides this spring because a challenging schedule that includes a three-game stretch against Utah, Texas and Oklahoma awaits this fall.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.