AMES — With a rope tied around his arm and the football tucked tightly underneath, Mike Warren braced for impact.
He wasn’t waiting for a defender trying to knock it free, however. It was Iowa State running backs coach Lou Ayeni.
“I kept telling him, ‘I’m going to punch that ball out. I’m going to punch that ball out,’” Ayeni said. “Then I said, ‘Let me get some boxing gloves and actually try to punch the ball out.’”
The rope yanked Warren’s arm back while Ayeni — who brandished a set of red boxing gloves with an I-State logo — delivered the jabs. Twelve punches and six tugs of the rope couldn’t spring the ball loose in this fall-camp rep. But that’s the idea.
Iowa State’s premier running back needs to be as sure handed as anyone on the team. There haven’t been any added bruises from the drill, but it’s gotten its point across.
“I think it’s all fun,” Warren smiled. “But at the same time ball security is at a premium right now. If you take care of the ball you’ll most likely win the game.”
After 13 lost fumbles as a team last season, Warren has led the charge to cut that down dramatically. Warren is listed five pounds heavier — now 6-foot-0 and 205 — but put it all in his upper body all in an effort to be steady-eddy in the ISU ground game.
The sophomore is tasked this fall with building on his breakout redshirt freshman season where he rushed for 1,339 yards on 227 carries, had six 100-yard rushing games and averaged 131.7 yards per game in Big 12 play. He was also the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and a first-team freshman All-American according to five outlets.
All that isn’t enough for Warren to rest on his laurels. Ayeni has made sure he knows how much room he has to grow.
“He’s had a really big emphasis on all the guys that are ahead of me so to speak, such as the rushing leaders last year,” Warren said. “He pulls that up everyday and says, ‘You’ve got to beat these guys out, you have to come to practice to work hard and hopefully you’ll be up there one day.’”
Twenty-three players, including Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry from Alabama, accumulated more rushing yards than Warren. Ayeni puts all of the names up on a projector in the running backs room as a constant reminder that with all of the good Warren has done, there’s still more to accomplish.
“I like my guys with a little chip on their shoulder,” Ayeni said. “They usually respond with a stronger practice or a little more focus or just a little more angry. When we play angry, we’re pretty good. So I like to poke the bear a little bit.”
There are other offensive weapons around Warren in quarterback Joel Lanning and wide receiver Allen Lazard, but he will rely most heavily on his inexperienced offensive line. The returners have one start (Nick Fett at left guard) and lost right tackle Jake Campos indefinitely with a broken leg.
Warren has spent as much time as he can with the linemen on the field and in the meeting room to build familiarity and continuity with all of the new faces.
“Whenever we’re doing walkthroughs he’s always there with us, especially pass blocking and stuff like that too,” said center Brian Bobek, a Minnesota transfer. “That really helps a lot when you have communication between the offensive line and the running back.”
In the new look offense, don’t be surprised to see Warren catch passes out of the backfield and help in pass protection more. He’ll be getting plenty of carries, but his expanded role has more to do with the maturation he’s undergone in a year’s time.
“Michael looks bigger, looks stronger and has had a good summer with what we’ve asked him to do,” said Coach Matt Campbell. “He did and now it’s about maturing a bit and practice habits and continuing to understand the whole game around him instead of just being a really good running back.”
Those names and stats on that projector in the meeting room will help Warren remember what he’s working for.
“They’ve got it made,” Warren said. “They’ve perfected their craft. It’s time for me to do the same thing.”