Back up for grabs

Mark Pawlak

With Troy Davis, Darren Davis and Ennis Haywood, Iowa State has had a running back rush for 1,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons.

Haywood reached that mark in each of the last two seasons. There is now a four-way battle heading into the fall to fill his shoes and find the Cyclones’ next 1,000-yard rusher.

Juniors Michael Wagner, Hiawatha Rutland and JaMaine Billups and freshman Brian Thompson are all in competition for the starting running back position.

ISU head coach Dan McCarney called the pursuit for the number one position the best competition on the team.

“It’s been real competitive. No one has had an edge. All four of those guys can play,” McCarney said. “It’s going to come down to every practice and every scrimmage to determine who’s number one. No one has jumped out and taken the job.”

Last fall, Haywood carried the ball 258 times for 1,169 yards – a 4.5 average – and scored 14 touchdowns. Wagner, Rutland and Billups combined for 76 carries and 189 yards, a 2.5 average, and two touchdowns.

Haywood’s numbers could be hard to fill. But despite last year’s numbers, each Wagner, Rutland and Billups has shown that they are up to the task.

Wagner filled in for an injured Haywood as a freshman in 2000 against Oklahoma State, where he gained an ISU freshman-record 170 yards on 26 carries and scored two touchdowns to lead the Cyclones to a win.

Rutland had a 7.1 average on 18 attempts for 128 yards in 2000 as a freshman. Wherever he ends up on the backfield depth chart, Rutland is a valuable performer on each of ISU’s special teams.

“I just want to help the team win in any way possible, if that’s running the ball 10 times or 100 times a game, or that’s playing special teams or not playing special teams,” Rutland said. “The best guys are going to play. If they need me at special teams, I’m willing to do that. If they need me at running back, I’m willing to do that also.”

Billups is a former Nebraska high school player of the year, who, as a freshman, in his first punt return scored a 72-yard touchdown in the bowl against Pittsburgh.

“Three of the four have played,” McCarney said. “We’ve seen Wagner, we’ve seen Billups and we’ve seen Rutland all on game day. Those kids all have experience.”

An unknown is Thompson, a redshirt freshman from Plantation, Fl.

“But, he was our scout team offensive player of the year last year. He’s got really good open field moves,” McCarney said.

The competition may become intense, but those playing for the position are a close group.

“We are pretty tight,” Rutland said. “(Wagner) and I were talking about that the other day, how it seems like we are the closest position group. I think that helps. Not only does that help us feel like better people; that helps the team. .We are just competing and trying to help each other to become the best possible football player and team member that we can become.”

Can Haywood be replaced?

“I think we’ll be able to do it,” Wagner said. “I think we all have a good chance of being able to replace him. We have a lot of experienced guys who can play really well, so it’s a lot of good competition out here. It’s pushing us all to be the best. I feel that’s where we need to be.”

Successfully replacing a 1,000-yard back has been done here before.

“I’m not really trying to replace him,” Rutland said. “My competitive nature wants me to make people forget about him. He had to do the same thing. He had to make people forget about the Davis brothers.”

McCarney knows the job ahead of them will be a struggle.

“It’s extremely tough, but it was extremely tough to replace Troy Davis,” McCarney said. “It was real tough to replace Darren and its real tough replacing Ennis Haywood. This program will move forward; we have to. The good thing is we have recruited good backs here. It’s just a matter of finding out which one is number one and who’s the backup.”

Can one of them gain 1,000 yards?

“That’s no problem. They recruited us because they think we were able to get the 1,000-yard job done,” Wagner said. “That’s what we are here to do.”