Sep 15, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Kene Nwangwu (3) runs the football against the Oklahoma Sooners at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Hakeem Butler. David Montgomery. JaQuan Bailey.
All three of the aforementioned ISU standouts chipped in big, clutch plays in Saturday’s otherwise grinding 26-13 win over Akron.
But the most pivotal, well-timed explosive play in the Cyclones’ first win of the season?
That may have come on special teams, thanks to quick-cutting kick returner Kene Nwangwu, who provided clear, if blurred, visual evidence that, yes, he may indeed be even faster than he was before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in spring of 2017.
Check that. He is faster.
“Oh yeah,” Nwangwu said. “Definitely.”
The 6-1, 206-pound sophomore from Frisco, Texas raced 49 yards on a first-quarter kick return that set up the first of ISU’s two touchdowns against the Zips.
The Cyclones were down 7-0, but wouldn’t trail again after Montgomery’s amazing balance kept that drive alive on a third down run and Butler’s aerial mastery cemented it with a sure-handed catch, run and spin to the end zone pylon.
“That (return) was the spark, quite honestly, that I felt like really changed the game,” said ISU coach Matt Campbell, whose team faces talented TCU at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU) in Ft. Worth. “You go down, you end up scoring on the touchdown and from there it was like, whew, we kind of settled in. And that was after the turnover and they scored, but I thought that was a huge point in the football game.”
Nwangwu’s sizable gains following his ill-timed Achilles tear have been even more impressive.
The injury occurred while performing a hurdle workout — ironically enough, the only track event he didn’t excel in during high school.
“I jumped over a hurdle and exploded off my foot,”Nwangwu said. “Yeah, it gave out. At first I thought my leg just hit the hurdle. I didn’t even think I tore it. Then when I tried to make another step, I couldn’t press off my toes.”
Season over. Long rehab on the horizon. Woe is me?
Not for Nwangwu.
“I wasn’t trying to look at big picture, like, ‘Oh, what am I going to do after like nine months?’” said Nwangwu, who owns six career kick returns of 40-plus yards. “I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do today to get better?’”
That incremental approach coalesced to form an even more elite framework for speed. Nwangwu merely trusted that the time he needed to put in couldn’t be accelerated. There was no short cut. No steps to skip on the road to recovery.
“That can be tough, but when you’re grounded and you know what you have to do every day, you just focus on one thing,” Nwangwu said. “You’ve got to focus day-by-day.”
Now he’s fully back — and an extremely hard target to focus on for opposing defenders.
“Kene’s one of those guys that can be a catalyst in a lot of ways,” Campbell said. “Where do you put him? How do you continue to use him situationally? He got a couple carries now the last couple games and we’ll continue to put him in some different spots. We’ll continue to find ways to use him because I think he’s such a special, valuable asset.”
CONNOR’S KICKS CLICK
Many were surprised walk-on Connor Assalley emerged with the starting placekicker job after fall camp.
Few are now, given Assalley, a junior from Naperville, Ill., has drilled all seven of his field goal attempts — including four-for-four in Saturday’s win, which netted him Lou Groza Award Star of the Week honors from the Palm Beach County Sports Commission.
“The reality of it is, he’s a really neat kid,” Campbell said. “He’s a young man that has excelled academically here. He’s a young man that’s really, when I say consistent, pretty much who he is, what his demeanor’s like, he’s the same guy every day. I do really appreciate that and admire (it) about him and I think that’s been a huge foundation for why he’s had so much success.”
Assalley ended up at Iowa State, in part, because his high school football coach knew former ISU assistant Lou Ayeni, and talked him up as a promising walk-on.
Assalley then found his way to Ames and settled in as a backup to high-performing former Cyclone kickers Cole Netten and Garrett Owens.
Finally, a real shot at the job arrived for him this season and he’s made the most of it.
“I don’t really like to think of it as pressure,” Assalley said. “My dad had me kicking since I could walk. He was a punter in high school, so something I’ve been doing this long, I probably shouldn’t get too nervous about. Just keep continuing to have fun with it.”
KYLE KEMPT STEADILY IMPROVING, NO RETURN SOON
Campbell said ISU quarterback Kyle Kempt is not practicing yet, but is expected to be approaching game-readiness in the next two to three weeks.
“I think a lot of it is seeing his progression through it,” Campbell said. “I think we’re all really happy with where he’s at and what he’s doing. It’ll be on his ability to get back. Believe me, nobody is working harder than he is to get himself back on the football field and be an asset for us. We’re seeing really positive momentum from him right now.”
Zeb Noland, Kempt’s backup, has completed 72.8 percent of his passes for an average of 296.5 yards and three total touchdowns in two starts this season.