David Montgomery emerges as a top playmaker in the Big 12

Iowa State’s David Montgomery runs downfield during the annual CyHawk football game Sept. 9, 2017. The Cyclones fell to the Hawkeyes 44-41 in one overtime.

Aaron Marner

In last year’s 27-6 loss at Texas, Iowa State’s offense struggled from the opening kick to the final whistle.

The biggest problem was the run game. Iowa State gained 98 yards on the ground on 43 carries, just 2.3 yards per carry.

Part of the problem was then true freshman David Montgomery. Not that Montgomery didn’t play well — he had 5.2 yards per carry that game, easily the best on the team among all four players with a carry — but rather that he didn’t get the ball enough.

Montgomery’s six carries for 31 yards just weren’t enough to make a significant impact against the Longhorns a year ago. In the following weeks, Montgomery received more touches and earned the starting running back role, which is what makes this year’s Texas game different than last year’s.

Montgomery, now a sophomore, said a lot has changed for Iowa State since that 21-point loss a year ago. According to Montgomery, the biggest difference is culture. In year two of the Matt Campbell era, Iowa State has taken great strides, especially on offense.

“I think [culture] is 99 percent of it,” Montgomery said. “Just understanding where we can be is the big part and how much we hold each other accountable. Coach Campbell always pushes a player-driven program, and last year we didn’t have that.”

The actual games, however, Iowa State’s star running back doesn’t think anything is different about playing those, even though the makeup and attitude of the team has changed.

“It’s the same to me,” Montgomery said. “I try to come in with the same attitude every day. Nothing’s changed for me. If it was six carries [like against Texas last year] or 58 carries, I’m gonna be the same me regardless.”

The Texas game provides a chance for Montgomery to show what he can do against a premier defense. The Longhorns held the then No. 4 USC Trojans to just 71 yards on 37 carries (1.9 yards per carry) two weeks ago.

There are positives and negatives to that. Texas is relatively unfamiliar with Montgomery, but Texas’ staunch front seven is ready for the challenge. If Montgomery can have a big game against the Longhorns on Thursday, he’ll become even more of a household name than he already is.

Iowa State coach Matt Campbell is fully aware of the challenge presented by the Texas defense, but he made it clear Montgomery will need to be a big part of the game plan for Iowa State to win.

“Creating a running game is certainly important because 32 [Montgomery] is a really good football player for us,” Campbell said. “Getting the ball in his hands and allowing him to have success is going to be important.”

Montgomery has also emerged as a threat as a pass catcher this season. His versatility out of the backfield could be the answer to beating the Texas front seven.

He caught just 13 passes a year ago in 12 games. In only three games this year, Montgomery already has 10 catches. That’s a tough skill to learn in just a year, which Montgomery has had to do because he played quarterback in high school.

“It’s not hard to me,” Montgomery said. “It’s kinda just like running the ball to me. They throw it to me, I’m gonna catch it.”

The offensive line feels Montgomery’s presence, too. Redshirt sophomore center Julian Good-Jones was complimentary of Montgomery’s running style, saying it makes the offensive line’s job much easier.

“Man, it’s crazy,” Good-Jones said. “It’s a really good feeling because even if you barely get up to the second level or barely touch them, David’s going to do something incredible. Honestly we could have bad blocking and he could turn it into a 50-yard gain.”

Montgomery doesn’t have to go far to find motivation this week.

Kareem Hunt, one of Campbell’s former running backs at Toledo, has made waves with the Kansas City Chiefs this year in his rookie campaign. Through three games, Hunt is leading the NFL with 401 rushing yards and six total touchdowns.

Iowa State’s players, especially Montgomery, have taken notice of Hunt’s success and have tried to emulate what he does.

“If anyone knows David Montgomery, he wants to know everything about why anyone’s successful,” Campbell said. “You don’t really have to go to David, David really doesn’t leave you alone. I’ve figured that out so I appreciate that about David.”

That work ethic is what has set Montgomery apart from the rest of the country in 2017. Among Football Bowl Subdivision running backs and wide receivers, Montgomery currently ranks No. 29 in yards from scrimmage with 421 yards through three games. Of the 28 players ahead of him, all but four have played more games.

His 140 yards per game ranks first in the Big 12. When Texas comes to town, all eyes from the Texas front seven will be on No. 32 as he lines up in the backfield. It’s a remarkable feat for someone who, less than a year ago, was only getting a handful of carries each game.

Still, that hasn’t changed Montgomery’s approach. If anything, it’s shown him he should keep doing what he’s been doing all along.

“It’s just football to me,” Montgomery said. “The Big 12 is just another league, another conference. I’m just going to approach it the same way that I approach any other game.”