AMES — Iowa State running back and kickoff returner Kene Nwangwu never was good at hurdles.
Nwangwu is undoubtedly the fastest player on Iowa State’s team, but there was something about hurdles that always tripped him up.
In high school, it was the one track and field event he didn’t excel in.
His brother, Emeka Nwangwu, on the other hand, was an excellent hurdler. He was a Texas state qualifier in high school and was a 2017 NCAA Outdoor All-American hurdler at Texas-Arlington. Emeka’s personal best in the 110 hurdles is 13.99 seconds.
Their high school track coach tried to get Kene to do the hurdles, but it just never worked.
Kene was meant to stay on the ground and run fast in a straight line.
Nwangwu said he is, without a doubt, faster than his track-and-field brother — as long as hurdles don’t get in the way.
As a true freshman at Iowa State in 2016, Nwangwu was a second-team All-Big 12 kickoff returner because of his blazing speed. He averaged 26.4 yards per return and took one back 97 yards for a touchdown. He impressed as a running back, too, as a freshman. He carried the ball 27 times for 133 yards, 4.9 yards per carry.
In the offseason after his breakout freshman campaign, Nwangwu was working out, nothing out of the ordinary. The workout involved hurdles.
“At first I thought my leg just hit the hurdle, I didn’t even think I tore it,” Nwangwu said. “Then, when I tried to make another step, I couldn’t press off my toes.”
Nwangwu tore his Achilles tendon doing a hurdle workout.
Nwangwu was forced to redshirt his sophomore season because of the injury.
Rehab was day-by-day, step-by-step.
“It can be tough,” Nwangwu said. “But when you’re grounded and you know what you have to do every day, you just focus on one thing. Not, ‘Oh, I want to be able to walk today, or I want to be able to jump.’ You have to focus day by day.”
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Nwangwu leaned on former Iowa State safety Kamari Cotton-Moya during his rehab last year. Cotton-Moya had the same injury his freshman year.
As his treatment and rehab progressed, Nwangwu started getting the weight room more and more to regain his strength.
When he started running full speed again, he noticed something.
He was faster than before.
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely faster,” Nwangwu said. “I actually feel better, too. I was extremely focused doing my treatment.”
It’s showing. Through three games, he is averaging 32.3 yards per kick return. His career average of 26.8 already is the best in Iowa State history.
Against Akron, Nwangwu returned one kick 47 yards to the Akron 49-yard line. That return set up a touchdown to Hakeem Butler.
“We’re close to housing one,” Nwangwu said. “I could’ve maybe gone to the right or left (to avoid the tackle). Every week we’ll have another opportunity to take one back.”
Last season when the Cyclones didn’t have Nwangwu, Iowa State averaged a meager 19 yards per return.
It’s safe to say Coach Matt Campbell is happy Nwangwu is back.
“He’s one of those guys that he gives you something that’s different and that something is elite speed,” Campbell said. “I think you saw on the kickoff return last week. You’re inches away from breaking that thing wide open and that was the spark, quite honestly, that I felt like really changed the game. You go down, you end up scoring on the touchdown and from there it was like, whew, we kind of settled in.
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“I think Kene’s one of those guys that can be a catalyst in a lot of ways. Where do you put him? How do you continue to use him situationally? He got a couple carries now the last couple games and we’ll continue to put him in some different spots.
“We’ll continue to find ways to use him because I think he’s such a special, valuable asset.”
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