AMES, Iowa – Steele Jantz arrived from California this past winter looking every bit the player Iowa State was looking for.
The 6-foot-3 quarterback with a trendy faux-hawk haircut had tremendous stats for City College of San Francisco last season.
He appeared to many to be the favorite to take over for departed senior Austen Arnaud from the moment he signed his letter of intent.
Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads isn't about to guarantee anything. Jantz and three other quarterbacks will have to prove they deserve to start in 2011.
"You look across the country. Any program that's an upstart, if you will, has a guy that's producing and performing at the quarterback position. We will be no different," Rhoads said. "We have to get better play out of our quarterback position as we move forward."
Iowa State, which went 5-7 last season, opened spring practice Tuesday with plenty of questions to answer about an offense that faltered in critical moments last season.
The Cyclones finished 97th in the country with just 21.7 points per game last season. And that was with both Arnaud, the program's second-leading passer with 6,777 career yards, and now-departed senior running back Alexander Robinson, who ranks fourth with 3,309 career rushing yards.
The first priority will be to find a quarterback, and Jantz will have ample opportunity to prove he's ready for it.
Jantz, a junior, threw for 3,075 yards and 23 TDs and rushed for 610 yards in junior college last season while leading his team to an 11-1 record. His first adjustment upon arriving at Iowa State in January was the Midwestern winter, but Jantz has kept busy in the gym and the film room.
"It's different. It's hard, but it's not too bad," Jantz said.
Rhoads said Jantz has shown strong leadership in his short time on campus, and he's confident Jantz is athletic enough to handle the running duties that are so critical in Iowa State's spread system.
"He did not come in and try and make waves. He blended in. He proved his work ethic to his teammates. He's got a certain way that he carries himself that the players have gravitated toward, and the athleticism we thought we were getting he's shown in the offseason conditioning work," Rhoads said.
But Jantz wasn't even listed as the starter at the start of spring ball. That distinction belongs to junior Jerome Tiller, who did little to distinguish himself as Arnaud's backup.
Tiller completed just 47.6 percent of his passes in 2010 and Missouri beat the Tiller-led Cyclones 14-0 in Ames to keep Iowa State from reaching bowl eligibility in the season finale.
"If I would take (Tiller) out there right now and put him through on some routes on air, he'd look like an NFL quarterback. He has the capability of being that accurate. Now he's got to do it when the bullets are flying, and that will be his test," Rhoads said.
Sophomore James Capello and redshirt freshman Jared Barnett are also in the mix.
Rhoads has said that Capello, a 6-footer from Lebanon, Pa., isn't the most polished or the fastest quarterback in the group, but the third-year coach has been impressed by Capello's knack for sustaining drives.
Capello led the Cyclones on a six-play, 79-yard scoring drive in garbage time against Utah last season, and Rhoads said he's shown a similar ability to move the team in practice.
Barnett, who is also 6 feet and roughly 200 pounds, battled injuries in 2010. But he's considered a dual-threat quarterback with experience in a spread offense from his prep days in Garland, Texas, where he threw for 2,134 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior.
All eyes will be on Jantz, though.
Jantz has downplayed the attention he's been getting and has even traded in his faux-hawk for a close buzz — a cut more suited for a player who's spent the past few months working toward being the starter for the Sept. 3 opener against Northern Iowa.
"I don't worry about it," he said. "Because when it comes down to it, I can only control what I can control. That's my mentality."