AMES, Iowa - Paul Rhoads openly admitted Monday that he's saddled with a bit of nervousness and anxiety as Thursday's season-opener approaches.
"It is absolutely crucial," Rhoads said of beating Northern Illinois. "Starting 1-0 adds to the credibility. ... You open up room for people scratching their head within your program by not winning and finding early season success."
That said, the Iowa State coach also knows his squad is more prepared for the football equivalent of trench warfare now than it was 12 months ago.
"We had an excellent training camp," said Rhoads at the outset of his second season as the Cyclones' head man. "I maintain that I have a very mature and focused football team - they don't take days off."
In 2010, Rhoads should benefit from a third-year starting quarterback (Austen Arnaud), an all-conference caliber tailback (Alexander Robinson) and lines that run at least eight players deep on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Depth, Rhoads noted, is "quite a bit (better), everywhere you look."
"The depth is great right now," Robinson declared. "Both the ones and twos (on the depth chart) are getting after it."
"At the skill positions," said Arnaud, "we've got guys that are athletic, with big bodies."
All those pleasantries aside, the visiting Huskies aren't simply coming to Ames for a sightseeing tour Thursday.
Northern Illinois, which advanced to the International Bowl last season, returns its top three offensive skill players and 10 starters off a defense that limited foes to a respectable 21.6 points per game.
Jerry Kill's club is predicted by most to contend for the Mid-American Conference's West Division title. And this year's season-opening foe is much larger along the offensive line - NIU is expected to start five lineman who weigh 300-plus pounds - than North Dakota State was 12 months prior.
Those facts could leave Rhoads snacking on antacids by about 8 p.m. Thursday.
Rhoads is confident his club has improved in recent weeks. Yet, he also knows his troops may have to improve immeasurably to smoothly navigate a 2010 schedule that features eight bowl teams from last season.
"A year ago I was just as nervous or anxious as I am now," Rhoads acknowledged. "We're gonna find out what we are Thursday."
PUNTING UPDATE: By the sounds of it, senior Daniel Kuehl has a slight edge in the battle for Iowa State's final open starting spot, at punter.
"Dan Kuehl is ahead at this point," Rhoads noted Monday. "But (freshman) Kirby (Van Der Kamp) has really boomed it the last couple days.
"Dan would probably have to go out through (tonight's) practice and fall on his face ... to not be the starting punter Thursday," added Rhoads, who said Van Der Kamp won't necessarily redshirt if he's not the starter this week.
JOHNSON JUMPS UP: Perhaps the most eye-catching move up the depth chart this week was made by senior defensive tackle Bailey Johnson. Johnson, a 6-foot-2, 278-pounder, surpassed sophomore Jake McDonough for a starting nod.
"On the defensive front," explained Rhoads, "you've got to get off a block to be able to go make a play, and Bailey, the last three or four practices, has done a great job of doing exactly that."
Said senior end Rashawn Parker: "Bailey, he works hard every day. He'll do great things for us."
REDSHIRT RAMBLINGS: Rhoads hasn't decided much, definitively, in terms of which youngsters will redshirt this fall.
"We're still evaluating a number of guys," said the coach, and "probably will be, going through games two and three."
Rhoads did, however, say that newcomers like cornerback Anthony Young, tight end Ricky Howard, middle linebacker Jeremiah George and tailback/return man Shontrelle Johnson could see action in Thursday's opener. Johnson is likely to return some kickoffs as the night wears on.