AMES — Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell is losing his star running back and wide receiver, yet the first thing to come to mind Thursday at media day was the new chairs in the meeting room.
“At least we got you a good chair for you and you’re comfy and cozy to ask good questions,” Campbell said to one reporter.
Campbell’s humor is representative of the team’s attitude toward the vacant positions: excited despite uncertainty.
The Cyclones have to replace departures at running back and wide receiver in David Montgomery Hakeem Butler, who were third- and fourth-round selections in this year’s NFL Draft.
“Those two guys have done so much for Iowa State football,” offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. “We have to find ways to replace those guys not only on the field from a production standpoint, but I think we have to do a great job in establishing and really encouraging some other guys in our program to step up and take that (leadership) role.”
Iowa State’s latest depth chart has five running backs listed as possible starters, with Campbell describing it as a “wide-open race.”
Redshirt senior Sheldon Croney, redshirt sophomore Johnnie Lang, redshirt junior Kene Nwangwu and true freshmen Breece Hall and Jirehl Brock are all vying for the starting running back role occupied by Montgomery.
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“It’s cool that all of us get a chance to compete, show our abilities and have fun,” Croney said.
Croney’s optimism aside, those options have little in-game experience. The three returning backs combined for 84 carries in 2014. Montgomery had 257 carries. Croney, who had 23 carries in 2018, is now serving in a leadership role.
“It feels different, especially having older guys (like Montgomery) who really led the way for us and kind of taught me and showed me the ropes,” Croney said. “It’s a fun role trying to help the younger guys.”
Campbell said he’s open to using a split workload in the backfield like he perfected at Toledo with future NFL running back Kareem Hunt splitting carries with Terry Swanson.
“If you do go back to our Toledo days, there were guys that were in there every other series,” Campbell said. “And they were darn good running backs. ... We’re at least finally at that place where there’s highly-talented, highly-competitive guys in that room (at Iowa State).”
Campbell said he’s still anxious for one running back to stand out in third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 situations, though.
At the third wide receiver spot, it’s an open race between redshirt freshman Sean Shaw, redshirt junior Jalen Martin and Arkansas graduate transfer La’Michael Pettway.
“The receiver situation is certainly going to be really unique,” Campbell said. “To be able to sit here and even say who (starts) is really hard right now.”
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While Manning said it’ll take five days in camp to get a better idea of who has a better chance at the starting spot, Campbell said it might not be clear until the season starts Aug. 30 against Northern Iowa.
“I really believe a lot of that’s (determined) when the lights come on and there’s 60, 70,000 people sitting in the stands,” Campbell said.
The wide receiver position already has the two other spots seemingly decided. Senior Deshaunte Jones returns to the starting lineup, and redshirt sophomore Tarique Milton slid into the top spot at the second wide receiver position.
“Those two primarily are guys who have really shown that in the toughest situations, in the critical moments, they’ve been able to make plays,” Campbell said.
Those two receivers are 7 inches shorter than Butler, forcing Manning to adjust his game plan.
“It is different maybe from what we’ve had obviously with having Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler and Matt Eaton,” Manning said. “Those guys were bigger, taller receivers. ... We can’t rely on throwing it up to the big guy.”
That challenge is not keeping the team from eyeing a Big 12 title after ranking third in the conference preseason poll.
“People are probably going to be looking down at us, but we’re ready to compete,” Jones said. “We’re ready to go out there and show people what we’re capable of.”
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