Running backs battle, utilize depth


Photo: Tim Reuter/Iowa State Daily

Running back Shontrelle Johnson is taken down by a Missouri opponent during the game Saturday. Iowa State failed to receive bowl eligibility after losing to Missouri 14-0.

Jake Calhoun

A year removed from one back getting a majority of the carries at the running back position, the ISU football team has four players vying for the starting spot.

However, with each candidate carrying a unique ability that serves separate purposes, the possibility of multiple players seeing substantial playing time is a potential solution for the Cyclones.

“It’s becoming more and more evident that it’s not going to be one guy,” said sophomore running back Jeff Woody. “It’s going to be a bunch of guys that all contribute, because we’re all able to.”

Utilizing the depth at the position will be a feat for the offensive staff after the departure of Alexander Robinson, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards in the past two seasons as the team’s feature back.

“You’ll see a variety of guys on the field at times,” said running backs coach Kenith Pope. “And I think that makes the competition level even more because those guys, every time they come to practice they’re going to give you a good day’s work.”

The depth featured at running back has caused optimism for the coming season for the offense.

“The running back position is going to be one of our bright spots I think this year,” said freshman Shontrelle Johnson. “We’ve got a lot of guys with a lot of different talents and a lot of guys that bring their own style to the table.”

Johnson, who rushed for 218 yards and two touchdowns as a reserve in his campaign as a true freshman, currently sits atop the depth chart above Woody, sophomore James White and freshman Duran Hollis.

Despite being described as elusive by Pope, Johnson said he has been working on improving his pass-blocking as well as getting stronger and faster.

However, a major key to Johnson’s development as a running back does not lie within the physical aspects of his position.

“He has to play smart,” Pope said of Johnson. “He has to understand the front, he has to understand the coverage, he has to understand and recognize what he sees, and when he does that, that will allow him to really play well for us.”

Woody has had to take on a new role in the backfield as a blocking back and short-yard gainer in the goal-line situations.

“He’s accountable,” Johnson said of Woody. “He’s a bruiser. He’s a power back and he gets the job done.”

As the heaviest of the four listed backs, Woody is listed at 232 pounds, outweighing Johnson at 180 pounds, to create a contrast that has the potential to deceive defenders.

“The more diversity you have as far as talent and ability, it keeps the defense on its heels as to what’s going to happen,” Woody said. “[Johnson and I will] both get our touches, we’ll both get opportunities, but you can play the hot hand, you can basically do whatever you want to with it.”

Having Johnson and Woody as the front-runners for a chunk of the playing time has not deterred White or Hollis from making their presence known this spring.

“Both of those guys are quality backs and they’re doing some good things right now,” Pope said of White and Hollis.

White is touted by Pope as an explosive back with the ability to make defenders miss tackles and gain the tough yards in the thicket of the trenches.

“James is a smart football player,” Pope said. “He understands the game real well, and that’s why I think he plays the game pretty fast right now.”

Pope said Hollis, who has been nicknamed “Duck,” has impressed him with deceptive speed and his ability to accelerate and make defenders miss in space.

Pope went on to say that Hollis has also shown an understanding of the offense, which has allowed him to play faster than he did last season when he redshirted.

“In this day and time, you have to have a lot of depth,” Pope said. “You don’t like to use that word ‘injury,’ but that’s part of the game. So right now, whatever happens to any of the guys, we’ve got four guys that we can win with.”