Cyclones’ receivers and running backs hungry for more in spring practice

Xavier Hutchinson (No. 8) and Sean Shaw (No. 2) celebrate after Hutchinson’s touchdown against Kansas on Oct. 31, 2020.

Matt Belinson

Editor’s note: The Iowa State Daily Sports Desk will have a spring preview of each position group for the Cyclones heading into the 2021 season. You can find other position group stories here.

A lot has been made about the amount of talent returning for Iowa State football in the 2021 season. And the wide receiver and running backs room are no exception. Just looking through the names, they very well might be leading the pack for the Cyclones in terms of expectations and returning production.

The Cyclones have 1,500-yard rusher and Heisman Trophy finalist Breece Hall. They also have former four-star running back Jirehl Brock waiting in the wings.

Over with the wide-outs, the Cyclones return First Team All-Big 12 and Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year Xavier Hutchinson. There’s also a fully healthy redshirt senior speedster in Tarique Milton.

There’s a lot to like if you’re Iowa State wide receiver and running backs Coach Nate Scheelhaase, and he spoke with the media Tuesday to discuss as much.

Scheelhaase, along with Brock and Milton, spoke about the amount of talent returning at the two skill positions and their plans to get better by the time the season rolls around.

Milton returns, bringing his over-the-top speed with him

Hutchinson’s arrival for an accolade-filled 2020 season set a big mark for the Iowa State receiving core, but Scheelhaase said one name that went under the radar due to nagging injuries was Milton.

Milton battled an ankle injury and a collarbone injury last season, sidelining the fast wide-out for a few games, leaving Iowa State without its reliable over-the-top target. Scheelhaase said Milton didn’t have surgery or any real rehab time with those injuries.

This spring has allowed him to get back onto the practice field at 100 percent health and get back to being an explosive wrinkle in the wide receiver room.

“Yeah, I’m excited about getting [Tarique] back healthy,” Scheelhaase said to the media Tuesday. “Tarique has been an explosive player here, he’s made a ton of plays down the field. Man, he’s a guy that can go and threaten people and he can threaten them with his speed and his ability to make plays with the ball in his hands.”

Milton caught 15 passes for 102 yards with no touchdowns a season ago, but he showed his true potential in 2019 when he finished the season with 35 catches for 722 yards and three touchdowns.

As the most experienced receiver in the room, the fifth-year Cyclone has plans on coming back with a reenergized approach.  

After sitting out in spurts last season and not being as productive as usual, Milton said he’s planning on having a bounce-back 2021 season.

“I’m planning on being as dominant as I can,” Milton said.

His ability to make defensive backs keep their distance and often miss first tackles and make plays in short yardage routes or deep shots makes him a valuable weapon come the 2021 season.

Returning contributors

Milton and Hutchinson will likely be the two biggest names mentioned when it comes to Brock Purdy’s targets this fall, but this spring practice time has shown the Cyclones they have depth and a lot of room to put even more talent on the outside.

Those names include Sean Shaw Jr., Joe Scates, Ezeriah Anderson, Aidan Bitter, Darren Wilson Jr. and Daniel Jackson.

“The exciting part is we do get a lot of those guys back, and we’ve seen those guys come back with a passion and hunger to grow and to be more productive and to be not only a year older when they’re out there on the field this next year but to be a whole lot better players,” Scheelhaase said.

Outside of Hutchinson and Milton, Shaw and Scates offer the most experience on the depth chart. Shaw, a junior, played in 12 games last season, starting eight games, and finished with 21 catches for 212 yards and a touchdown.

Scates played in 11 games in 2020 with six total catches for 134 yards and two touchdown receptions in his limited action on the outside.

Scheelhaase also noted that Anderson has gained 15 pounds this offseason and has brought a physical mentality to early practices. Anderson, a redshirt sophomore, played in nine games last season on special teams.

“We have a lot of talent in the room, a lot of young people,” Milton said. “We’re kind of taking it slow right now because we’re kind of basing on the fundamentals and technique right now.”

As Hutchinson returns after a breakout 2020 campaign, Iowa State expects and has seen the supporting cast around him to contribute in a meaningful way.

Hutchinson’s targets and receptions may have been skewed last year, but Scheelhaase said that comes with the position. Hutchinson may be the No. 1 target for Purdy, but the offense needs every receiver to come ready to play each game. 

So far this spring, Scheelhaase has liked what he’s seen from all of the Cyclones.

“Our offense is into one thing: moving the ball down the field and scoring points,” Scheelhaase said.

Brock getting a bigger role

Breece Hall grabbed the headlines behind a historic sophomore season, but so did his main backup and prolific kick returner in Kene Nwangwu. The Cyclones also had Johnnie Lang sidelined due to injury most of last season.

But Nwangwu has declared for the NFL Draft and is participating in pro days, and Lang has transferred. So what happens behind Hall now that those two are out of the picture?

Enter Brock.

After being used primarily as a third-down back last season, Brock is on his way to stepping into a bigger role as Hall’s potential backup, as well as filling in for Nwangwu on kick returns.

“For me, it’s been about building consistency,” Brock said.

Brock said the coaching staff at Iowa State has always valued trust in who they play, and he’s tried to slowly build that over the years. With those ahead of him on the depth chart gone, he said he thinks he’s earned his coaches’ trust.

Scheelhaase agrees.

“We continue to see him working this offseason, the work he’s put in with our strength staff and seeing his body and where it’s at two years later, it’s been really impressive,” Scheelhaase said.

The Quincy, Illinois, native rushed 13 times for 46 yards last season but picked up big yardage on some short-down plays and provided extra blocking.

Scheelhaase said Iowa State operates by proving you can be trusted in small bits, and he believes Brock has done that to earn an expanded workload come this fall.

“We reflect back on last year and feel like he proved a lot to us and what he can do in our offense,” Scheelhaase said.