AMES — For the first time since Matt Campbell arrived in Ames, he’ll have a running back competition.
David Montgomery was the Cyclones’ workhorse for the last two seasons, rushing for over 2,000 yards.
Iowa State now has five players in competition to get carries — redshirt senior Sheldon Croney, redshirt junior Kene Nwangwu, redshirt sophomore Johnnie Lang and true freshmen Breece Hall and Jirehl Brock.
“We’d like to have a good idea of who’s getting the first handoff by the beginning of (this) week,” offensive coordinator and running game coordinator Tom Manning said. “At the same time, they’re very interchangeable. I don’t know if it matters who gets the first handoff, but who fits best with the flow of the game and who plays how much and when.”
Campbell said Friday that Nwangwu had a little hamstring issue, but should be full strength by Sunday. He also said Nwangwu was having a really good fall camp before he was sidelined.
While the staff will try to figure out who gets the first handoff for Saturday’s game against Northern Iowa (11 a.m., FS1), Campbell sees the competition continuing into the first couple weeks of the season (Iowa State’s second week is a bye).
“Who’s what and where can they go?” Campbell said of his running backs. “The real positive for us is that whole entire room has done a great job. We feel confident in that room, but it’s going to have to play out a little bit. They’ll all get reps as we work through the early part of the season.”
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Nwangwu has the most experience of any of the running backs with 66 career rushing attempts for 290 yards.
Sheldon Croney has 54 career attempts for 215 yards and two touchdowns and Johnnie Lang has 26 career attempts for 84 yards and one touchdown.
Combined they’ve rushed the ball 146 times for 589 yards and three touchdowns in their careers. Last season Montgomery rushed 257 times for 1,216 yards and 13 touchdowns.
To say the group doesn’t have a lot of game experience is an understatement, and that doesn’t even include the two true freshmen.
Hall, a 4-star recruit out of high school, early enrolled to Iowa State and has turned heads during fall camp.
“I’m very impressed by Breece,” Manning said. “He’s done a really good job picking up the offense. Obviously coming in early has really helped him. I’ve been really pleased with the way he’s approached the game. I’ve been very pleased with how he’s continued to progress in pass protection. He’s a very impressive young man that’s serious about football and serious about his team.”
Hall likely won’t start — it took Montgomery three games to get more than five carries in a game and it took him eight games to get double-digit carries in a game as a freshman — but from what the staff has indicated, Hall’s redshirt will be burned, even with the four-game rule.
“I think the main thing with Breece was his confidence,” Croney said. “Him getting that spring in, I’ve seen his confidence go way up. He’s more comfortable in the offense and around us.”
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It also wouldn’t be all that surprising to see Brock’s redshirt burned — he was also a 4-star recruit but did not early enroll — but that seems less likely than Hall’s getting burned.
“Jirehl Brock has really come on this last week and a half,” Campbell said.
Iowa State won’t have a workhorse like Montgomery, but even back at Toledo when Campbell had Kareem Hunt, he didn’t use him as a workhorse. Hunt had 178 carries for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns in Campbell’s last season at Toledo in 2015 and Terry Swanson had 143 carries for 923 yards and seven touchdowns.
Expect a similar distribution for Iowa State this season. All five will get opportunities early, but by the end of the season, Campbell will have two backs getting the bulk of the carries with a third potentially getting a handful if needed.
“It’s a really hot competition, so I can’t call it,” Lang said. “But it’s going to be an exciting season for the running back room.”
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