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CFF Series - ISU's next superstar sophomore?
Gambling investigation? Improved offensive line play? A lot of question marks in Ames this season...
It's the training. It shapes you into a lethal instrument. You react in a microsecond without thinking…
- Bill Paxton, True Lies (1994)
Iowa State has proven to be a hidden gem of College Fantasy Football (CFF) talent during the quietly productive Matt Campbell era. Especially noteworthy is their running back position, which has witnessed a succession of dominant volume pigs gracing Ames over the past half-decade. Indeed, when it comes to elite systems, I advocate that CFF managers often need only follow the coaches to find productive future assets; ‘it’s the training’ as they say, it shapes these players into lethal instruments, allowing them to react in microseconds—accumulating yards and TDs alike.
Unfortunately for CFF managers (and the Cyclones), 2022 was a divergence from the prototypical patterns we’ve grown accustomed to. For starters, the offensive line was not effective. This in turn effected the run game overall, and hampered each runner throughout the season. Second, the running back room resembled that of a classic committee. This was in part due to injury, but it was still a troubling sign. Finally, while the Cyclones have had a sneaky amount of elite CFF WRs in the past, the passing volume that was unleashed in 2022 was an unexpected revelation (to the pleasure of Xavier Hutchinson share holders, though).
But 2023 looks to be a rekindling of the old Cyclone philosophy. Campbell has acknowledged that they need to find a way to run the football more effectively, and the recent staff turnover reflects the emphasis being placed on that.
In other news, the CFB community as a whole was caught off guard this offseason with the alleged gambling taking place amongst Cyclone players. At the Big-12 media day, Campbell offered some comments on the situation:
Yeah, you know, right now for us, that investigation is ongoing . . . Just continues to not really have a lot of clarity to it, but I think we're getting closer to getting clarity.
The appreciation that I have is they've kind of given me the opportunity to be removed from that process and just give me the results once the results come our way.
I think what I would just say for any of our young men that either are or aren't involved in this is it's a great learning lesson. Part of what I love about teaching is you're teaching 18- to 22-year-old young men. There's rules and regulations.
We'll kind of learn what happened in that situation here shortly, but it's a great teaching moment, and how to handle things when it doesn't go well, and how do you respond from that.
Once it's time to have clarity to that and then respond to that the right way, I know our football team and certainly the young men in our team will do a great job of that.
One of the players rumoured to be potentially looking at a suspension is returning RB Jirehl Brock. Brock was slated to be the starter at the top of the depth chart to open the season, but now with the looming investigation, CFF managers are beginning to kick the old tires on sophomore RB Cartevious Norton. So how do I feel about this situation? Well I’m glad you asked, because I have conveniently placed some of my thoughts below.
Coaching & System
Current ISU head coach Matt Cambell joined the program in 2016. Previously, he spent four seasons (2012-2015) as Toledo’s head coach, and actually took over the program late in 2011 in an interim capacity, leading the Rockets to a bowl win.
The OC—Nate Scheelhasse (we’re going to call him ‘coach S’), was promoted from within this offseason. Previously he served as running game coordinator/running backs/wide receivers coach for the Cyclones from 2018 to 2022. So he’s been with the program almost as long as Campbell has. With no prior experience calling plays, it’s unclear what his tendencies will be. But I’d hazard a guess that Campbell’s influence will be heavy in the offence in year one of coach S’ regime. That’s good news for the running back position. In the seven years that Campbell’s been with the Cyclones, five have featured a 1000+ yard rusher (I’m including Breece Hall’s 2019 season because he was well on pace to achieve this had he taken over earlier).
We all know what Breece Hall did during his time in Ames, before him was another NFLer in David Montgomery, who rushed 257 times for 1216 yards and 13 TDs in 2018. He also caught 22 passes for 157 yards. Those numbers are equivalent to around 19.7 FPG in 1-ppr formats. In 2017, Montgomery rushed 258 times for 1146 yards and 11 TDs, and caught 36 passes for 296 yards in 12 games (equivalent to just over 20 FPG). In 2016 — like Breece Hall’s freshman season — Montgomery took over late in the year, rushing 24, 11, and 21 times in his final three games. When Hall took over in his freshman season, he averaged 21.5 carries a game.
The new RBs coach — Jordan Langs, joins by way of FCS program Indiana Wesleyan (head coach from 2016 to 2022). Lang’s program produced a 1000 yard rusher in 2022 in Dederrian Williams (221-1251-14). However, it appears that that was the only season with Wesleyan where Langs’ program would do so.
CFF managers anxiously awaited to see how this backfield would shake out in the 2022 season. As it turns out, the pattern of volume pig usage folded, as default RB1 Jirehl Brock battled injuries. However, even when Brock was healthy, the Cyclones were 1) throwing the ball more often than before, and 2) splitting carries between the runners. It was true freshman Cartevious Norton who was nipping at the heels of Brock all season long. Add in Eli Sanders to the mix and things got hazy.
But will this program revert to its old tendencies in 2023? With Brock potentially missing time (or even the whole season), it could be time to shine for Norton. ISU’s previous two bellcows first found their way into the starting position mid-season, so Norton would already have a leg up on them if he gets the nod to open the season. There’s still that pesky rascal Sanders, but we’ll get to him later.
RB Cartevious Norton — 5’11, 212
The true sophomore out of Waycross, GA had a solid freshman campaign with the Cyclones. The former three star prospect handled 87 carries for 312 yards and two scores, along with 12 receptions for 69 yards in the air. He gradually saw an uptick in volume as the season progressed, and then suddenly took on a strong workload in late October.
Over his final five games, Norton averaged 15.4 carries per game, and 17.8 touches per game. Some of that timespan coincides with Jirehl Brock’s injury, but even still, it’s encouraging that Norton got those looks so early on. We’ve seen other highly touted true freshman backs with plenty of opportunity not get the same consistent volume (see Jaylon Glover of Utah).
His best game of the season came against WVU, where he carried the ball 18 times for 69 yards and two scores, plus caught four passes for 18 yards. He finished that game with 24.7 points. However, it’d be the only time he surpasses 10.5 fantasy points in a game that season. As a true freshman, this is not a major concern of mine. All told, he finished 2022 averaging 7.8 FPG in 1-ppr formats.
While Norton saw steady volume down the stretch of the season, his yard per carry average was persistently low, finishing only one of his final five games with a YPC average over four. However, it should be noted that the ISU o-line struggled last season, and the coaching staff acknowledged as much. It’s partly why Campbell hired a new offensive line coach this offseason. Here’s an excerpt from a Cyclone report:
How powerful a stamp has new offensive line coach Ryan Clanton put on his group?
The former Northern Iowa assistant’s track record for success is robust and by all accounts, his ability to coax maximum effort and production from his players has amped up since he arrived in Ames. An underperforming and often banged-up offensive line last season proved to be a big reason the offense sputtered late in drives that could have, but didn’t, produce points. The Cyclones fielded the worst rushing offense in the Big 12 last season and ranked 128th among 131 FBS schools in red zone scoring percentage (70.45%).
Part of those issues hinged on injuries to top running backs Jirehl Brock and Cartevious Norton, as well as spotty field goal kicking, but a reinvigorated O-line would cause both numbers to improve. Campbell said this summer’s workouts would be particularly important for his front men — and talent returns along the line of scrimmage for ISU.
Several offensive linemen with starting experience such as Jake Remsburg, Darrell Simmons and Tyler Miller worked to get bigger, faster and stronger in the offseason. It will be interesting to hear what Campbell has to say about this group’s development.
At the very least, it sounds like offensive line play was made a priority this offseason, we’ll have to wait and see how things transpire on the field. 247 Sports also wrote about the line in spring:
Among the several changes head coach Matt Campbell made during the offseason, one of the most crucial was the addition of offensive line coach Ryan Clanton from UNI. Clanton has already made an impact on the offensive front during his short time on staff, and the level of physical talent in the offensive line room may help the Cyclones quickly improve as a unit. With four starters returning, Iowa State has a chance to completely revitalize its offensive line this fall.
Starters Darrell Simmons Jr., Jarrod Hufford, Tyler Miller and Jake Remsburg are some of the expected returners this year, bringing potential experience and a high level of talent to the offensive front. The Cyclones can also rely on the depth of players like Grant Treiber, Brady Peterson and James Neal, who have been able to develop in Iowa State’s new OL system this spring. The talent is there for the Cyclones to make progress up front this season, and the level that Clanton has impacted the position will directly affect Iowa State’s offensive output in 2023.
I’m not sure where 247 Sports is getting their info regarding the level of impact on the position, as games are not being played, but simply by virtue of the fact that so much emphasis has been placed on improving the play of this unit, I’ll assume things are looking upward for 2023.
The investigation is currently on-going, as such, we do not currently have clarity on the availability of Brock. Norton’s profile is contingent on the pathway clearing in front of him. Is he Breece Hall or David Montgomery? Probably not, but if he sees strong volume with improved offensive line play, that’ll work just fine.
Another assumption that is baked into this profile is that the offensive line is going to improve. We see a lot of talk about nothing above, what really matters is what happens on the field and that remains to be seen.
I’ve chalked up the concerning YPC average from 2022 to the facts that 1) he was a true freshman and 2) the offensive line was struggling, but truthfully, the jury is still out on Norton’s ability as a runner.
Even if Brock misses time, Norton will still have to contend with rising junior Eli Sanders (6’0, 200). Sanders is a former three start recruit out of Arizona, and rushed for 197 yards in 8 games last season.
Cartevious Norton currently holds an ADP of 229 (around the 19th round in 12 team leagues). That’s interesting. I actually wasn’t expecting it to be that high in CFF formats. I think even before the news about this investigation, some are of the mind that Norton taking over in the backfield is inevitable. I’m not there, Brock did some good things last season when healthy, and if he’s full go I expect him to be atop the depth chart.
At the 19th round range, I can’t be mad at taking a chance on the upside with Norton. The system he plays in has been elite. With the new OC, however, there is an element of wait-and-see mode for me. I feel pretty confident that ISU will be better at running the football this season (I mean, the bar is pretty low…), the problem is that waiting on the news on Brock means Norton’s price could be much higher when drafting him.
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