AMES — All last season (and into the winter), I heard nothing but glowing reviews detailing how Iowa State redshirt freshman running back Mike Warren had performed since arriving on campus.
Hard worker? Check.
Legit athlete who can turn a small hole into a big gain all while shedding a tackler or two? Uh-huh.
Heir apparent to the starting tailback spot vacated by Aaron Wimberly? Not so fast.
Monday, Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads met the media to advance Tuesday’s extra-early opening of spring practice and made it clear that Warren’s got fast company.
And it’s not just because it’s spring ball.
Rhoads said less hyped, but slightly more experienced sophomore Tyler Brown (109 yards rushing, 23 yards receiving, one touchdown last season) could be the man to beat in the race for the No. 1 tailback spot — and it’s a spot he occupies now.
“Mike and Tyler are both explosive,” said Rhoads, whose team ranked 105th nationally in rushing at 124.1 yards per game last season. “(They can) push a pile a little bit, but they’re guys that we want to see fully utilize their foot speed, their quickness and their overall speed and they’ve shown that in the offseason stuff that we pushed through. Especially Tyler Brown. (He) will go into spring ball as No. 1 and if his offseason is any indication, he’ll be working hard not to give that up.”
That’s taking nothing away from Warren — or, for that matter, bulkier back Martinez Syria, who Rhoads also sees as a potential load-bearer.
ISU burned Syria’s redshirt last season and he rushed 20 times for 47 yards and a touchdown while battling concussion issues.
One common denominator for all three of these backs: Rhoads wants to see them develop more size as they seek to produce in a backfield that became razor-thin when Devondrick Nealy left the team.
Warren’s listed as 6-0, 196 pounds. Brown stands 5-11 and weighs in at 186. Syria’s measurables are 6-0, 212.
“Mike is a guy that we believe is going to be a 200-pound plus back, which is where we want to be with our backs — where we haven’t been with numbers in the past,” Rhoads said. “Martinez, we’d like to see pushing 215-220 by the time it’s all said and done. Martinez is going to be a guy — and I’m going to throw him into the conversation for you — that’s going to drop his shoulder as well as being able to shift and make a guy miss. We’ve got to get him running behind his pads and downhill.”
Whether that’s allowed to happen, of course, hinges on an offensive line that lost leader Tom Farniok and solid performer Jacob Gannon to graduation.
Spotty blocking leads to an uphill, not downhill situation no matter a back’s speed or elusiveness.
“We want to be better at knocking people off the ball,” Rhoads said. “Part of the offense, by design under (coordinator Mark Mangino’s) philosophy, and I’ll use some of his terms, as we move more laterally is to puncture people. That’s part of zone philosophy, you get people moving left and right you wear them out as the game goes along, whether it’s with bubble passes or perimeter runs or fast tempo. As you do that, holes start to open up and fast backs, quick backs, puncture through the line and get into the second level, get into the open field. We want to continue to do that but at the same time we want to knock some people off the ball.
First, the line needs to fully mend, while avoiding a spate of catastrophic injuries, unlike the past two seasons.
This spring, likely starting right tackle, Brock Dagel, will participate on a limited basis after being lost last season to a knee injury. Backup lineman Jacob Dunning (knee) will be held out of spring camp, as will starting guard Daniel Burton, who required knee surgery at the end of the 2014 season.
“The rehab is going very well, but he will miss all spring,” Rhoads said.
It’s intriguing to see mid-year JUCO transfer Patrick Scoggins listed at the No. 1 center spot left vacant by Farniok’s departure.
Sophomore Nick Severs is listed as his backup, though experienced guard, Jamison Lalk, could slide in there if needed, too.
“Patrick, like the junior college guys we talked about in February, they’re brought in to play,” Rhoads said. “We evaluate the start of the spring practice depth chart by February work. So guys — some of it might be reflected to you, and quite honestly some of it might not be reflected to you, but that’s a piece of it that Patrick has taken advantage of as he’s arrived on campus.”
Warren, Brown and Syria have the March and early April pieces to work with in order to solidify their roles behind that healing line.
And Brown enters spring as the front-runner because of his work ethic as much as his raw talent.
“He’s had an exceptional offseason,” Rhoads said.
Rhoads said big-play wide receiver Quenton Bundrage is doing “very well” as he seeks to perform his first true practice reps since an ACL tear ended his 2014 season four plays into it. “He’ll be in a blue jersey tomorrow,” Rhoads said. “You’ll see him on the practice field. He will remain in a blue jersey, which means protected — a player that we don’t hit. He’ll remain in a blue jersey all spring but I anticipate him being active all 15 days.”