Face of the program
Kempt is Cyclone football personified
Matt Campbell deservedly gets the lion’s share of credit for Iowa State’s extraordinary turnaround.
The progression of the Cyclones’ defense — especially since coordinator John Heacock went to a 3-2-6 alignment — has been nothing short of remarkable.
Bruising tailback David Montgomery has 923 yards from scrimmage. Star receiver Allen Lazard has been his usual, steady self. And Joel Lanning’s story has been told a thousand times over during the team’s surreal surge into the national spotlight.
Let’s clear the deck here, though, and shine the spotlight on quarterback Kyle Kempt for a moment.
Consider this: in the first four starts of his long and winding career — filled with pitfalls, failures and empty promises — the fifth-year senior walk-on has won all four games, beaten TWO Top-5 teams, completed 67 percent of his passes, racked up for 859 yards, and tallied nine touchdown strikes.
More importantly, though, a guy who hadn’t really seen live snaps in a game on a regular basis since high school — five autumns ago — has thrown only two interceptions in 111 attempts and not fumbled the ball once in consecutive wins over third-ranked Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas Tech and No. 4 TCU. Jacob Park, in contrast, had five interceptions in Iowa State’s first four games. The Cyclones’ turnover ratio is 11:2 with Kempt at the helm — the best in the country over the last month — compared to 6:5 under Park.
Kempt’s media-guide profile couldn’t fill up a page in a pamphlet. In 2013, he redshirted at Oregon State. In 2014, he was still technically a member of the Beavers’ team, but didn’t play a single down. He transferred to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College for the 2015 campaign, but didn’t see the field there, either.
Campbell, who tried to recruit Kempt to Toledo during his decorated career at traditional power Massillon (Ohio), received a call in early 2016 from the down-on-his-luck signal-caller about walking on at ISU. Kempt joined the program, but found himself behind Park, Lanning and even Zeb Noland on the depth chart.
In 2016, Kempt logged mop-up time against San Jose State — then sat the rest of the year. He was the reigning offensive scout team player of the year, but still served as Park’s understudy through a 2-2 Cyclones’ September.
When Park left the team for undisclosed reasons before the Oklahoma game, however, Kempt sprang into action. The rest, as they say, has been history.
I can’t help but wonder how much of the Cyclones’ meteoric rise to stardom can be directly attributed to Kempt’s cool hand. Not just in the way he’s performed on the field, but the way he’s carried himself away from it. I’m sure teammates have a tremendous amount of respect for his kind of work ethic and perseverance.
Kempt has seen and done things in darkness that make him appreciate every moment in the sun. He hit rock bottom athletically. He patiently waited his turn without any real guarantees. A combination of knowledge, perspective, experience and modesty is rare in this day and age.
Kempt’s story is the Cyclones’ story. Forgotten. Dismissed. Taken for granted. Yet persistent. Always persistent, regardless of what the odds or critics say.
This is a collaborative effort, of course. Again, Iowa State wouldn’t be where it is today without Campbell’s tutelage, or the defense’s progression, or big-name veterans like Montgomery, Lazard and Lanning doing what they do.
If you’re looking for a true turning point, though, Kempt’s promotion has to be considered it. He’s been accurate and poised with the ball in his hands. He’s taken his humble beginnings and steady failure and turned it into a revenge tour on the naysayers and experts.
In other words, Kyle Kempt is Iowa State football right now. And they’re both living the dream.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @MessengerSports