By Greg Gulas
The Iowa State Cyclones are ranked anywhere from No. 16 to 24 in most preseason publications. ESPN went as far as to say that they will stage the Big-12’s biggest upset when they defeat Texas on Nov. 16 in Ames, Iowa, the only loss they predict the Longhorns will suffer this year.
If the Cyclones — they’ve posted back-to-back 8-5 seasons — and head coach Matt Campbell expect to live up to or better those prognostications, then Mahoning Valley natives Tom Manning and Jon Heacock will have a big say in their success.
Heacock, the former Youngstown State head coach and veteran of ISU’s coaching staff, serves as Campbell’s defensive coordinator while Manning, a former all-state performer at Ursuline High School who won two Division III national championships under head coach Larry Kehres at Mount Union, is the offensive coordinator.
Both coaches are excited to get the season underway today when they play host to Northern Iowa at noon in Ames, yet Heacock cautions that preseason rankings, while nice to talk about, must be taken with a grain of salt.
“Preseason rankings are based on what you’ve done the previous year and really don’t have much to do with this year,” Heacock said. “It is what it is and a nice conversation piece until the season begins.”
Heacock’s defense and Manning’s offense have produced several big wins over the past two seasons, including a 38-31 win over then No. 3 Oklahoma, 14-7 over No. 14 ranked Texas Tech and a 21-20 win over No. 19 Memphis in the Liberty Bowl in 2017.
They also stopped No. 6 West Virginia, 30-14, then posted a 48-42 victory over No. 25 Oklahoma State last season, wins that had the college football nation take notice of the Cyclones’ improvement.
It’s time for a breakout season if you listen to both coaches.
“We’re strong down the middle and that’s what keeps us together as a unit,” Heacock said. “Mike Rose of Cleveland is our mike linebacker and the player who lives closest to the Mahoning Valley. Ray Lima is our nose guard and a great captain while middle safety Greg Eisworth was last year’s Big 12 newcomer of the year so we’re strong where we need to be.”
ISU started slow last season, losing three of their first four contests before reeling off seven wins in their last nine outings, including a five-game Big-12 winning streak.
Heacock said things won’t be any easier for his defense this season.
“The Big-12 is a league unlike any other that I have been associated with,” he said. “There are so many incredibly skilled players that you have to prepare for each week. The quarterback position is both deep and well-documented with our conference producing the last two Heisman Trophy winners. As a defensive coordinator, I deal with skill and great quarterback play every week. Some are runners, others are throwers and then there are throwers who can run. That won’t change any time soon.”
Manning was a teammate of Campbell’s with the Purple Raiders and returns to ISU for his second stint — he spent last season as tight ends coach for the Indianapolis Colts — having served as offensive coordinator from 2016-17 when he produced two of the most prolific offensive seasons in school history.
“We’ll run a little bit of everything. It’s just special to be back at ISU with a different perspective after being away for a year,” Manning said. “We’ll run multi-personnel, multi-formation and multiple tempo spread with the ability to play multiple tight ends.”
He said Big 12 teams run varied defenses.
“We play a lot of very good, multiple defenses,” Manning said. “Some are three down, others four down with a variety of coverages. We face a ton of different things each week and go up against some very good defensive coaching minds and players.
“The stigma is that the Big 12 doesn’t play good defense when actually they are very good defensively.”
Manning said stepping away for a year was good for him.
“I was with these guys for 10 years or so and was able to get a different viewpoint,” he said. “I coached tight ends and got to see the professional day-to-day approach, as well as game-planning.
“From a CEO perspective, I saw how to help the offense and learned a lot about football. Still, it comes down to footwork and fundamentals. It made me a better coach.”
Manning also got to witness firsthand the recently retired Andrew Luck. He called him nothing short of amazing.
“Andrew Luck is an unbelievable human being,” Manning said. “He’s a phenomenal quarterback and someone very passionate about the game.”
When necessary, both Manning and Heacock school the staff on the excellent food they grew up on in the Mahoning Valley.
“I miss being around the high school coaches and the talks we would have about football,” Manning said. “I tell the guys about the great places back home to eat and personally, I cannot wait to get back to the area and head over to the Golden Dawn Restaurant.”
Heacock chimed in by noting the Youngtown area is the best at satisfying one’s appetite.
“Tom and I invariably talk about Mahoning and Trumbull County sports teams,” he said. “From the MVR to the Golden Dawn you can talk sports and get a great meal. Nothing beats the pizza back home.
“We’ve boasted so long about Handel’s ice cream, we had some shipped out here and the staff absolutely loved it. Talk about great.”