LUKE MEREDITH,AP Sports Writer
AMES, Iowa (AP) — For years, Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads has insisted that the Cyclones are bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic than ever.
This could be the season that the Big 12 learns just how far Iowa State has come under Rhoads.
The program is certainly a lot healthier than it was when Rhoads took over in 2009. The Cyclones have again broken their own record with more than 40,000 season tickets sold, and the $20 million football facility they opened in October should help recruiting.
But the breakthrough many Iowa State fans believe is coming under Rhoads hasn’t arrived yet. The Cyclones have finished 6-7 in each of the past two season and they’ll have to replace 11 starters — more than any other team in the Big 12.
There’s muted optimism that the depth Rhoads has built up during his tenure should keep Iowa State from falling off the proverbial cliff in 2013. For that to happen, a host of inexperienced, unknown players will have to step up.
“Our youth is very apparent right now on the practice field,” Rhoads said. “We have the least amount of returning starters in the Big 12 conference. I think that’s showing a little bit right now, especially on defense.”
Five things to watch for this season from Iowa State in its fifth season under Rhoads:
1. SAM I AM? The Cyclones aren’t engulfed in a quarterback controversy for the first time in years because sophomore Sam Richardson has a firm grip on the job. Richardson has only started two games in his brief career, and he’s still a bit of an unknown despite throwing eight touchdowns against one interception at the end of 2012. Richardson has shown a lot of promise with his arm and his feet, and he could the crucial piece the Cyclones need to compete in the quarterback-driven Big 12. But if Richardson gets hurt or simply underperforms, the Cyclones will probably be in serious trouble.
2. LIFE AFTER KNOTT & KLEIN: For years, Iowa State leaned on linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein to lead their defense. Both have moved on, creating a leadership void on that side of the ball. The Cyclones are high on Jeremiah George and Jevohn Miller, but there will certainly be an adjustment period as the defense adjusts to life without its two cornerstone players.
3. BELL COWS: Iowa State shouldn’t have to worry about the health of its running backs in 2013. What the Cyclones might have trouble with is keeping all of them happy. They likely won’t, since they enter the season with six backs capable of seeing the field. Seniors James White and Shontrelle Johnson will likely lead the way, but there’s intriguing depth of both the speed and power variety right behind them.
4. DEFENSE: The Cyclones had trouble getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2012, ranking 109th nationally with just 15 sacks. There’s little question that Iowa State needs to make QBs more uncomfortable this season. The Cyclones opened camp with a dozen defensive linemen on the depth chart and might use as many as 10 a game this season.
5. SURVIVING THE SCHEDULE: Once again, Iowa State will have one of the nation’s toughest schedules. But it’s also a weird one. The Cyclones have two Saturdays off in September, followed by back-to-back Thursday games against Tulsa and Texas. After that, Iowa State has eight straight Big 12 games — five of those on the road — as it attempts to finish over .500 in the conference for the first time under Rhoads. “Pushing past three (Big 12 victories) and into the top half of the league isn’t something we’re going to back away from,” Rhoads said.
Predicted order of finish in the Big 12: Ninth.
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.