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Associated Press, Published September 01 2009

Cyclones set for Bison

AMES, Iowa – There’s a new coaching staff, a new system and renewed sense of optimism at Iowa State this season.

What else is new?

For the third time in four years, the Cyclones head into their opener with a different head coach that they hope will produce different results. This season it’s Paul Rhoads, who took over last December when Gene Chizik left for Auburn after just two years in Ames.

Rhoads has worked tirelessly over the last eight months to get the program back on its feet after Chizik’s stunning departure and last season’s 2-10 record.

The new-look Cyclones finally get to see what they’re made of Thursday night when they host North Dakota State of the Football Championship Subdivision.

“I’m just as excited as everyone else in the program,” Rhoads said. “It’s time to play against somebody else.”

The good news for Iowa State, which finished 0-8 in the Big 12 in 2008, is that it left fall camp relatively healthy. Wide receiver Darius Darks is battling through a hamstring injury, but Rhoads says he expects him to play Thursday. Safety James Smith should play despite a strained calf.

The Cyclones bring back a host of veteran players on both sides of the ball, which should help ease the transition to yet another new coaching staff.

Ten of the 11 offensive players the Cyclones plan to send out for the opening series against the Bison have started before. That experience is key for the Cyclones because they’ve implemented yet another new system – the spread – in the offseason.

There will undoubtedly be some growing pains as the Cyclones adjust to offensive coordinator Tom Herman’s no-huddle attack.

“We’re making strides every day, and that’s the most important thing,” junior quarterback Austen Arnaud said.

The biggest key to whether the Cyclones will flourish with the spread will be the play of Arnaud, now in his second season as the starter.

Though Arnaud started every game in 2008, he shared time with since-departed Phillip Bates through the first four games of the season. Arnaud began to emerge down the stretch, tossing for over 300 yards in three of Iowa State’s final five games, and finished with 2,792 yards passing and 20 total touchdowns.

Perhaps the biggest thing working in Arnaud’s favor is that Iowa State’s deepest unit just might be its wide receiving corps. The Cyclones return senior Marquis Hamilton, talented sophomore Sedrick Johnson and Darks, who set the school’s freshman record for receptions with 49.

Junior college transfer Darius Reynolds, who scored 24 touchdowns as a quarterback and wide receiver last season at Reedley (Calif.) Community College, proved to be a quick study in his transition to full-time wideout and will start Thursday.

“He’s a very explosive kid. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he can make about anybody miss,” Arnaud said.

Iowa State’s defense is experienced up front, with six of its seven starting linemen and linebackers back for 2009. Of course, those players were part of one of the nation’s worst defenses last season, allowing 452.8 yards per game.