Running back trio vies to balance playing time

Dean Berhow-Goll

Iowa State does not have a No. 1 running back who will get a majority of the carries in place.

But unlike the quarterback position, the running backs do not have a discrepancy over who will be starting.

The system put in place by Paul Rhoads and offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham is a running back by committee. Those three running backs will include last year’s leading rusher James White, Jeff Woody and Shontrelle Johnson.

Last Thursday, running back coach Kenith Pope was quick to change any thoughts about there being a clear-cut No. 1 running back.

“Right now, James White is still No. 1, but I don’t look at No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 because it’s only one play,” Pope said. “My whole attitude is being able to put the right combination in the game when we need it.

“All three of those guys — Shontrelle, Jeff Woody, James White — have some things that you really like, and so therefore we’ve just got to be able to use that group the best way to help us as we game-plan, as we go into each week seeing what we want to do, who we want in the game, those types of things.”

White started nine games last year, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. White took the lion’s share of the workload while Johnson recovered from a neck injury suffered in the fourth quarter against Texas.

White scored eight touchdowns, including his first receiving touchdown on a wheel route in overtime against Oklahoma State last year. He was also named All-Big 12 Honorable Mention.

While discussing running backs with the media Saturday, Rhoads said “James White is being James White,” which he explained as him being strong and steady throughout training camp.

Woody will be used as the short-yardage back as he was last year when he scored six touchdowns, with all but one coming around the goal line. Woody had a memorable moment himself last year when he took all three carries and the eventual game-winning touchdown in the second overtime drive against Oklahoma State.

Woody was very grateful about having the three-man rotation in place when he talked about how he felt after having another training camp under his belt.

“It’s wonderful,” Woody said. “This has physically been one of the easier camps because we split reps with the ones three different ways. I’d think if you asked the defense they probably don’t like having a fresh running back in there at all times.”

Johnson returns to his position after a neck injury that allowed him to play in only four games last year. 

Also, he was  able to tally only one 100-yard game last year with the win against Iowa, where he ran for 108 yards on 18 carries.

At one point, Johnson’s career was in jeopardy as he did not know whether he would be able to return to the field. It was originally called a stinger, but later Johnson learned he would need season-ending neck surgery.

After a long and frustrating rehab, Johnson is now splitting reps with White and Woody and will be ready for the first game of the year against Tulsa on Sept. 1.

“Since he’s been back, it’s been like he’s never been gone really,” Pope said. “I’m really surprised about the way he’s responded and the way he’s reacting to everything.

“I thought he’d be a little rusty getting into it at first, but now because he’s so mature right now, he understands the offense and understands what we’re trying to get done so he’s playing fast.”

As far as using running backs depending on situations in a game, Rhoads said they will only use Woody situationally, such as short-yardage downs and when they need to run the clock out. 

In terms of a third-down back and a specific back in a certain package, he said he doesn’t think he’ll need to switch anything up.

“He’s our short-yardage; he’s our goal line; he’s our run the clock out kind of guy, but we’re not afraid to play him at other times as well,” Rhoads said of Woody. “He’s the only situational guy we have. We think all of our guys are more than capable of being pass-protectors as well as route-runners and runners.”

Having three running backs in serious contention for playing time diminishes the title of “starter” for the position, especially with the way the game has transformed in a way that makes multiple backs a norm.

“You never go through the season with one back,” Pope said. “You can go to the National Football League — I don’t know if anyone [in the NFL] plays with one back. I don’t think you can because what we ask those guys to do, the intensity level is so high, I want my guys to play fast every time they’re out there. Every play, I want them to play like their hair’s on fire.”