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Fox Sports Southwest Interview with Iowa State Head Coach Paul Rhodes

It didn’t take long for Paul Rhoads to make a lasting impact in Ames. Upon his arrival in 2009, Rhoads delivered on his promise of a bowl appearance in his first season by leading Iowa State to an Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota. |It didn’t take long for Paul Rhoads to make a lasting impact in Ames. Upon his arrival in 2009, Rhoads delivered on his promise of a bowl appearance in his first season by leading Iowa State to an Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota. 2010 was a rockier roller coaster, as the Cyclones fell just short of a second straight bowl berth with a 5-7 record. The devastating lows of consecutive blowout losses to Utah and Oklahoma were followed by a shocking upset over Texas in Austin. Give the Cyclones this much: they don’t lack for effort. As long as prognosticators keep predicting ISU to finish in the conference standings, Rhoads and his team will continue proving them wrong on the field. Iowa State just wrapped up its spring practice sessions on Saturday, and Rhoads took some time out to talk with

I’m sure you’re never happy with a 5-7 season, but it seemed like the entire outlook of the 2010 year might have changed had the fake field goal worked against Nebraska. Do you look at last season in that same light?
Well there are a lot of plays that go into a season, and that certainly wasn’t the only play that kept us from winning at least a sixth football game. But when you’re right there at the doorstep and you have a chance to throw and catch a pass and win a football game, it’s the one that lingers and seems to hang around the longest. Sports and competition are about execution and the bottom line is we didn’t execute the play and give ourselves the chance to celebrate a victory.

Obviously the win at Texas was huge for your program. What was the overall mood of the team entering that game, especially after losing the games to Utah and Oklahoma in the manner that you did the two weeks before?
It was one of a number of big victories: beating Texas Tech, beating a ten-win Northern Illinois team as well. But we had struggled badly for two straight weeks, obviously. We had gotten run out of the stadium by both Utah and Oklahoma. The thing I remember very distinctly about our football team is the preparation never changed. Our kids came to work every day. It didn’t matter what day of the week it was. They kept on taking the coaching and going out there and working, preparing to win a football game. I think we approached that Saturday in Austin, Texas no different than the previous games or the games that followed.

Your spring practice sessions concluded with Saturday’s spring game. How do you feel like the 15 practices improved your team?
It was a very physical spring, maybe the most physical spring that we’ve had. The first year there was a lot of installation. The second spring, we were trying to figure out what we had left from year one and move on to year two. Now we sort of know what we are and what we’ve got, so we’re developing everything and getting better. We were very physical this spring. Fortunately we came out of it with no major injuries, no holding anybody back in August. I think we had great competition. The development on both lines is the best that it’s been. We’ve got a two-deep on both sides, and it’s the first time we’ve felt this strongly about them.

Obviously quarterback is the position battle everyone is focused in on. You’ve got four players fighting it out, although most of the discussion has revolved around Jerome Tiller and Steele Jantz. How do you see that race right now?
It’s a four-man race. I’m sitting here watching the spring game as we speak, and all of them had their shining moments in the spring game, as well as over the rest of spring practice. It’s a good issue. It’s a good problem. You could look at it in two directions. One, that nobody has done anything to separate himself from the rest of the competition. Or you could look at it as everyone has done enough at this point to put himself in a position to continue to battle for it. September 3rd is a long way from April 18th. We don’t need a starting quarterback right now. It doesn’t affect our football team overall. We’re running the same offense, and at some point in August we’ll have a guy, and he’ll start taking the majority of the reps with the ones.

Austen Arnaud seemed like such a respected leader for you, not just as a player. How have these guys done so far at replacing him not just on the field, but in the locker room, film room, etc.?
I think that’s part of it. They all have to learn that part of it. Austen obviously was that kind of guy because he was a two-year elected captain by his teammates, so he had a great deal of credibility and respect. I think that’s a big part of it with these guys. That’s part of earning the job. You do it in one way by your productivity and how you perform, and you do it another way by how you lead. I think all four of them have different leadership styles, and I’d be lying if I said that wouldn’t be a part of choosing who the starter will be.

Steele Jantz was a big signing for you in February, but is it a little more difficult to work in a junior college transfer at quarterback? Obviously it worked last season at Auburn, but not everyone is Cam Newton.
No, there’s only one guy that wins the Heisman trophy the last time I checked. He led his team to a national championship. So no, any comparisons to any players across the country to a guy like him [Newton] are unfair. Quarterback is the hardest position on the football field, and there’s no question about that. Having Steele here mid-season ñ to be able to learn the offense and get the reps going into summer and then fall training camp ñ is paramount to him having the opportunity to be our starter.

Jerome Tiller has seen limited action in each of the past two seasons. Where has he improved most in your eyes from last year to now?
I think his maturity, and understanding what his responsibility is outside of the center snap and either handing it off or throwing a pass. I think those leadership qualities that we talked about and a thorough of understanding the offense ñ making checks, getting somebody moved, getting somebody fixed, patting somebody on the butt ñ I think those are all things that he’s grown up and learned to better as time has gone by.

You can’t talk about ISU football over the past few years without mentioning Alexander Robinson. You also have to replace him. Do you feel like any of the backs competing have a leg up to be the every-down back in the fall?
Well, Shontrelle Johnson is our starting tailback, so if you’re looking for a guy with a leg up on the competition, it would be him. Jeff Woody gives us a completely different style. He’s somebody who can grind out tough yards. And then Duran Hollis and James White both are dynamic in their style of running the football. We would not be afraid to put any of the four on the field right now, and that’s a real positive for our program.

There were a lot of questions about this year’s group of receivers and how much they have improved. Aaron Horne, who transferred from the City College of San Francisco with Steele Jantz, had a huge game Saturday, but who else impressed you over the duration of these 15 practices?
Aaron did have a good spring game, and that was important. He’s had some up days and he’s had some down days this spring, and he’s also one of our four incoming transfers this spring; that goes with the territory [with early enrollees]. He finished with a good amount of catches and a high amount of yardage.
We went into spring looking for six guys who we were confident in playing. I think we have our two-deep in guys right now. You’ve got returning players Josh Lenz, Darius Reynolds and Darius Darks. And then you’ve got some new blood in Jarvis West, Aaron Horne and Albert Gary. That’s not to say that Chris Young, Keith Blanton and Donnie Jennert couldn’t make plays for us. But I think the first six are the guys that have established themselves in our two-deep right now.

You have some big shoes to fill at tight end with Collin Franklin moving on. Franklin led your team in receptions and receiving yards last year. Do you think you’ve found a guy who can replace Franklin’s production there?
I don’t think so, and the reason I say that is Collin’s an NFL player. He’ll be drafted here in a week or two, and you don’t easily replace a guy like that. Kurt Hammerschmidt is very similar in his athletic traits. Ricky Howard is more of a blue-collar type, and Reid Branderhorst is a walk-on for us who’s more of a combination of the two. So I hope as a group, we can be productive at the position. I don’t know if we can replace Collin, though.

It’s been a struggle for your team to get consistent pressure on quarterbacks the past two seasons. As a team, ISU only recorded 11 sacks last year. Have you been experimenting more with blitzes this spring, and how do you feel about the progression there?
We have brought a little bit more pressure this spring, and that’s been favorable to us. Of course, you always open yourself up to risk when you do something like that in the form of a big play. Our overall personnel, just our front four has been more consistent. I don’t at this point whether we’ve protected [the quarterback] as well as we have in the past or if our pressure is just that much better, or it’s a combination of the two. But standing behind the quarterback for most of the spring, I know this: the pocket moved quite a bit and it couldn’t be happening anytime sooner for our front four.

It takes time for coaches to really get their entire program installed…not just X’s and O’s, but recruiting tactics, strength and conditioning program, etc. Do you think your team has just been outmuscled at the line of scrimmage in a few games?
No, I don’t think it had anything to do with strength or conditioning. I think we’re in as good of football shape as any team in the country. I give a lot of credit to our strength staff. I think it’s player development and ability. You’ve got to have people in those positions that can beat the people playing across from them. That’s what takes time. There’s a big difference in what you can accomplish technique-wise as a football player when you do it full-speed. We can do things at full-speed. Now we’re getting to the point where we can do them a little bit better.

There was so much talk about conference realignment, expansion, etc. during last summer. The Big 12 lost two teams but definitely looks as if it will continue to survive with the new TV deal signed last week. Are you happy that your program now has a solid home for the foreseeable future, or do you feel the conference is even more ‘South-centric’ than it was before?
I think the Big 12 is just as solid as ever. I think the new TV deal underscores that, and the commitment by the ten institutions and the ten presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and athletic departments. I think everybody within the Big 12 is excited about our future, and that includes television and media folks on the national stage.

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