Cyclone Football: The running backs report

By Chris Williams

Iowa State’s running game was a surprise bright spot for the 2009 Cyclones. Alexander Robinson proved to be one of the Big 12’s best running backs and according to coach Kenneth Pope, the best could still be to come with the man they call A-Rob. That’s one of the hot topics in today’s Cyclone football report with Iowa State’s running backs coach, Kenneth Pope. Enjoy this exclusive Q&A here at

CF: Well we have to start with Alexander Robinson. Did you have any clue that he was going to have the type of year that he did?

KP: You always base everything off of what you see in practice. A year ago, I was really excited to see, the thing that Alexander brings to a program is that he picked up our system very, very fast. As practice went on, he executed the things that we were trying to accomplish in the spring. He is a very athletic guy. When you put his athletic along with his mental ability to learn, it made things a lot better. I felt like he would have an opportunity to be a good solid player, not knowing he was going to rush for over 1,000 yards. That is always a goal as a running back, to reach that magical goal of 1,000 yards. He was able to do it. I thought that I was going to be using more than one back at a time. He really emerged and did all things that we needed done.

CF: When you guys all got to Ames, a lot of people thought that Iowa State’s offense would consist of Austen throwing the football all over the field. Not many people expected the running game to be your bread and butter. Was that planned all along?

KP: In being around Coach Herman (Tom) for a short period of time, you always want to be a balanced offensive football team. I think that a lot of it depends on the success you have in things. It allows you to do more things. To run the ball as effectively as we were, it gave us the opportunity to do some things in the throwing game as well. We did not realize that we were going to be as effective at running the football as we were. I think that a lot of that, you have to go back and look at the offensive line play. I really have to take my hat off to Coach Bliel (Bill) and the job he did with the guys up front. That allowed A-Rob to have such a year that he had.

CF: A-Rob had injuries lingering all season long. He had a really good year but it could have been great right?

KP: We talked about that as a matter of fact last week. That is something that you don’t control. You don’t control injuries. If there was any way to prevent the injuries that he had, he probably would have had the opportunity to have at least 1,500 yards himself this year because he got off to a great start. He basically missed two games. He played in the game against Kansas State but only played seven snaps. He really was off to a great start. He had that one long run. I really feel that if he was healthy at that time, he probably could have had a phenomenal day which would have really helped us have an opportunity to beat those guys if we could have had A-Rob the whole time.

CF: Let’s talk about some guys who are going to be in competition to be A-Rob’s backup next season. What about James White? Can you give me a scouting report on him?

KP: The nice thing that we had every Sunday during this past season, we had our developmental squad workout. Those guys, guys like James White, would be able to scout team the whole week, preparing the defense to get ready for whatever offensive football team that they would play during that particular week. On Sundays, what we did, which is really good for the young guys, we called it a developmental workout. We had a chance, as coaches, to coach those guys, one-on-one and actually play 11-on-11 against the defense, the scout team defense. The young guys actually had a chance to run our offense and run our defense, which would give them an opportunity to be more knowledgeable about what we are doing during the season. It really helped him, in particular. I will know a lot more this spring. I saw a lot of good things, every Sunday that we worked. Now, it will be more going good against good, going into the spring. I will be able to tell, a little bit more, how explosive he really is. Physically, he has the physical tools as far as speed and quickness. He put on quite a bit of weight. He is a lot bigger than when he first came in. He is now around 180. Alexander Robinson is around 182 and sometimes 179 so I don’t think that size is an issue. The big thing, I think, as far as Iowa State is concerned is if a guy is explosive and quick with the ability to separate and affect a defense that way. I think that we just have to wait and see. I saw some good things as far as James White with quickness. The thing that I would really like to see this spring is if he can separate when he gets into the second and third levels. I want to see if he can run away from some people and see exactly how fast of a young man he is. We don’t time guys as far as a 40 or that kind of stuff. The thing will be interesting to see how fast he plays, with 11 going against 11. I want to see if once he gets in the secondary, if he has the ability to go. That is how I will be able to know how explosive of a runner he will be. I think that mentally he is going to be fine. He understands the offense. He understands what we are doing. Now, going into spring, it will be interesting to see how physical of a player he can be and what he can do when we put the ball underneath his arms.

CF: With A-Rob’s injury problems last year, one would imagine that you all are stressing to find that second guy for next. Is that accurate?

KP: I’ll be honest with you. I went through the Big 12 and most of them are playing two backs. I am a strong believer that you need to have two backs. If you go back and look at the NFL, if you go back last night (Sunday), both teams played two backs. When you look at Adrian Peterson. As dynamic of a back as he is, they still played that other back as well. In time, you’d like to have two backs who can give you a different look and also, in my opinion, it makes you a stronger football team because it makes you compete harder every time that you go out there. You’re constantly thinking that you have to make a play. That didn’t happen to A-Rob but I feel like he could be a little bit more effective or kept healthy the whole year if I was able to utilize and have somebody come in to give him a break at times. I think that at this level, you need to do that.

CF: Do you like the depth that you have though with guys like Beau Blankenship, Bo Williams, White and so on?

KP: The good thing about Blankenship, Williams, White and also the guy that we really need to wait and see about is Jeff Woody, he is a guy who I think we’ll be able to fit in and do some things for us as well. This spring is going to be really helpful for us all because I’ll be able to see a little bit more. I have no doubts about what Alexander Robinson is going to be like. I have talked to Alexander about the things that he needs to do to make us a better football team. He needs to be able to catch the ball coming out of the backfield. He needs to do some things there where he can improve there as well. He needs to improve in the passing game part of our offense. I think that will make us a lot more effective. He did some good things when we got the ball to him and those type of things. We just need to talk a little more during the offseason about how he can help us a little bit more as far as throwing the ball to A-Rob more as well.

CF: When you think of what a perfect running back would look like in this system, is that they type of guy you would think of?

KP: I think that you have to have a guy who can do it all. As you can tell, we move our guys out, just like wide receivers and linemen as well. He has to be able to stretch the defense. You want a guy, when you do move him out as a wide receiver, you do want a guy that can really affect a defense. It won’t take long for defensive minded coaches to look out there and think that they won’t throw to 33 if he is lined up out wide. When you do that, in my opinion, you have to be able to throw the ball and create a matchup with five guys and not have them think that one guy doesn’t matter. You have to do a great job, when you line a back up out there, you need to utilize it in the throwing game, when he is out there. Now, the defense has to cover, when I say five guys, you have to be concerned about all five and not just four guys going into the formation part of it. That is where I think that A-Rob can improve. Running ability wise, he is as good as he will probably ever be. He is a guy who can make people miss. I think that the biggest thing with Alexander Robinson is to be able to keep him healthy. If there is a way to keep him healthy and if we can have him fresh for the whole year, he’ll make our offense even more explosive. Once again, I think that the key to that is being able to develop some depth. We have guys who are here and they will realize that they are competing over who will be that second guy.

CF: I know that Bo Williams has all of the physical tools in the world but he had a hard time finding the field last season. Will another offseason help him find playing time?

KP: We’ll just have to wait and see. Physically, he has a lot of things that he can do. The thing that keeps holding him back is that he needs to grasp the whole offense. That is the thing that slowed him down, just being able to grasp the whole offense. Like I said before when I talked about Alexander Robinson, the best way to describe him as is a coach on the field. That is what you like about him. He sees things. He understands things. He is able to communicate to you very well. Those are things that a back has to do. When I can find those guys who understand what is going on and can come off the field and communicate, we talk to them in between plays. When a guy comes back and tells me what happened during the play because he sees things very, very well. Then, when you go to look at film and the things that he says as the game was going, you see the same things that he was talking about and you understand. We don’t see it all on the sidelines. It is kind of hard to see. You have to have a guy on the field who understands what is going on. He is one of those guys that tried to improve himself, football knowledge wise every afternoon on the field. When he looks at film and he studies film, he is trying to get himself the best preparation that he can in order to be effective as the game goes along. Really, it is helpful to him. He can actually draw up a front and tell them who they are blocking. Understanding that, he understands how to set up his blocks from the offensive line. It makes the offensive line much more effective blockers. He understands how to go about doing those things. That is what makes him so special in our offense, because of the knowledge that he brings to the team. My job is to get the rest of the guys to develop that same type of understanding of the offense. If we do, it allows us to be very successful in what we want to do in year’s to come.

CF: Will A-Rob be considered one of the league’s elite backs heading into next season?

KP: I think that coming back, you have a lot of good backs in the Big 12. I think that he will be one of the guys that they will talk about in the Big 12 because of the success that he had this past year. Obviously, with the amount of success that he had last year, you really have to step it up the following year. I really have no doubt that he’ll set his goals high and his standards high with what he wants to achieve.