Running back position up in the air less than two weeks before kickoff

Running back Kene Nwangwu tries to gain yards during the second half of the game against Drake University at Jack Trice Stadium on Dec. 1, 2018. The Cyclones won 27-24.

Noah Rohlfing

Iowa State has been blessed with consistency at the running back position for the past three seasons. Ever since David Montgomery arrived in 2016, the running back position has been one of the Cyclones’ biggest strengths. Despite three different coaches at the position group in four years, Montgomery kept the starting mantle and grew into one of the best players in Iowa State’s football history.

Now he’s gone, without a ready-made replacement in line. So what next?

It’s a five-man competition for the job, according to running backs coach and offensive coordinator Tom Manning.

“We’ve had a lot of guys get in there at different times, and they’ve done a really good job,” Manning said. “I think we’d like to have a pretty good idea at the end of the week.

“I don’t know if it really comes down to who gets the first handoff.”

Part of the reason for indecision is the involvement of two true freshmen in the mix — Breece Hall from Wichita, Kansas, and Jirehl Brock from Quincy, Illinois. Both are four-star recruits who represent some of the most lauded talent that Campbell convinced to come to Ames. Hall was the talk of spring practices among the running backs, and there would be little surprise if he was to see game time against UNI in the season opener. 

Brock’s potential role is unknown, but Campbell was high on him when he commited last summer.

But alongside them in the room are three experienced backs in Sheldon Croney, Johnnie Lang and Kene Nwangwu. Croney has the most carries of the three backs — 66 in total over two seasons — but none of the backs have had an extended stint in the starting spot. 

The leading returning rusher for the Cyclones isn’t even a running back — it’s starting quarterback Brock Purdy, who ran for a net gain of 308 yards, while Nwangwu is the leading running back returning with 157 yards. 

Purdy’s legs will do damage, but Campbell wasn’t high on the prospect of using a running back commitee for the rest of the year. 

“I think there’s a lot of guys in that room that have earned the right to play football,” Campbell said on Media Day. “How or where they get themselves on the field is going to be really fun to watch.”

A committee is what will likely be in place for the Northern Iowa game on August 31 though, unless one back takes control of the battle and catches the eye of Manning.

Lang said the competition is intense, but that coaches haven’t been doing much externally to increase the pressure on each player. 

“You can’t really tell right now,” Lang said. “Everybody’s getting reps, everybody’s going, so it’s hard to tell where the competition is.”

Manning was loath to give any tips to reporters Monday on which direction he was going, which means this certainly won’t be the last time questions will be asked of the position, as it goes from a big strength to a potential weak spot.

Maybe the position will be decided before the season begins and the running back battle will fade into the background, or maybe the by commitee approach will stick. But on an Iowa State team that is heading into the season largely settled and carrying Big 12 championship aspirations, it’s not hard to see why the Cyclones are being thorough.