AMES — Iowa State’s running back battle will likely carry on for a week or two, but a couple guys seem to be separating themselves.
Sheldon Croney didn’t get a single touch against Iowa and Breece Hall only had one. The only running back to get more than two carries was Kene Nwangwu.
Nwangwu rushed just six times, but he made the most of those carries, running for 54 yards. His longest run was 18 yards.
Nwangwu rushed four times for 30 yards against Nothern Iowa in week 1 before leaving with an injury.
He’s been the most productive and the most consistent runner for Iowa State Coach Matt Campbell.
Nwangwu has been named to All-Big 12 teams in his freshman and sophomore seasons for his return ability, but the fastest player on the team wasn’t used there last week, partly because he was returning from injury. To stray from that production shows how much Campbell wanted to use Nwangwu as a running back.
What’s held Nwangwu back has been one major injury, an Achilles tear after his true freshman season. He redshirted his sophomore season and didn’t feel right until midway through last season, his redshirt sophomore year.
“If you go back, and this is what’s been tough about Kene, to him as a true freshman and that Oklahoma game — it’s David (Montgomery) and it’s Kene,” Campbell said. “David gets dinged up and Kene has to play the second half. He was outstanding. Really rushed the football really well. Then we go to Kansas and he catches the ball out of the backfield and really ran the ball.
“I’ll be honest with you, we were like, ‘Man, this guy has a chance to be a really special running back.’”
In the Oklahoma and Kansas games combined, Nwangwu had seven rushes for 28 yards and one catch for 16 yards.
“That injury had a profound impact on him, especially a guy like Kene who relies on speed,” Campbell said. “That’s not one where you can just come back from it. He missed that season, missed the next spring, then finally last year it took until midway through the season for him to even be back to being Kene.”
It showed in the stats. Nwangwu didn’t get a real chance to run the ball until October, when he rushed 10 times for 49 yards against Oklahoma State.
But what Nwangwu has shown this season has reignited Campbell’s belief that Nwangwu can be a reliable running back.
“I still think Kene has a chance to be really special,” Campbell said. “He has great strength, he gets north and south and has strong runs. He’s a guy that’s going to only continue to get better. His key is staying healthy so he can get great reps in practice, so he can be the same guy in practice that he is in games. If he can do that, you’ll only see him get better and better for us.”
Strength is something Nwangwu worked on in the offseason. He’s always been a burner and a guy you can get the ball to outside and watch him out-run people.
But he hasn’t always had the strength to run between the tackles.
“You saw him in the weight room all summer long,” Iowa State offensive lineman Collin Olson said. “He was lifting with the line half the time. He’s a very strong kid and carries himself well. He definitely has the power to run between the tackles, and he can obviously run outside of the tackles. It’s fun, we can do a lot of things with him.
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“He has the speed, but I think he completed his game this summer and it’s really shown.”
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