Dec 28, 2018; San Antonio, TX, United States; Iowa State Cyclones running back Kene Nwangwu (3) carries the ball against the Washington State Cougars in the 2018 Alamo Bowl at Alamodome. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Few running backs in the history of Iowa State football have brought the complete package to the field like David Montgomery. There was a reason No. 32 was used in so many different ways during his three years in Ames, whether it be carrying the ball, catching the ball or blocking for the passer.
Now, the Iowa State staff is tasked with replacing that complete player who will hear his name called in the NFL Draft later this month. But, again, few players exist with that complete package, which means it will likely be a group of backs asked to fill the shoes Montgomery leaves behind rather than one particular player.
“I think that room is a really tight room. I think it’s been a really tight room for a long time,” Iowa State running backs coach and offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. “I think that’s the culture that’s been set here, David was a big part of setting that culture, and I think those guys have done a great job in that room.”
Redshirt senior Sheldon Croney may be the closest thing the Cyclones have to the complete package Montgomery brought to the table. Albeit without quite the same dynamic ability that has made Montgomery one of the favorites to be the first running back off the draft boards.
Croney rushed for 56 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries last season plus added 71 receiving yards on nine catches. His two biggest performances of the season came when Montgomery was hurt — 20 yards and a touchdown on four carries against Oklahoma State — or out of the game due to an ejection like in the win over Baylor that Croney helped seal with a key late 25-yard reception.
“I think the thing that really shows up with Sheldon is he’s pretty much the same guy every day on the football field,” Manning said. “He’s been really consistent for us. Just happy with what he’s doing. Making the right reads and going out and catching the football.”
Perhaps the most tantalizing talent in Iowa State’s running back room is redshirt junior Kene Nwangwu, who burst onto the scene as the Cyclones’ kick returner as a true freshman. After missing a season due to an Achilles injury, Nwangwu returned to the field last season and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors as a kick returner.
While his impact has been felt heavily on special teams, Nwangwu has not been able to find a consistent role in Iowa State’s offense. Last season, he rushed for 157 yards on 39 carries while earning his first start in the team’s loss to Texas — a game Montgomery missed the first half of while serving a suspension.
With Montgomery out of the fold, there is an opening for Nwangwu, the consensus fastest player on Iowa State’s team, to have an even bigger hand in the offense’s productivity.
“When you look at Kene, he’s a good runner. It’s a little early to say exactly what we’ll be doing with him but I see Kene as a running back, but also Kene has the ability to get the ball on the edge and really stretch a defense,” Manning said. “Obviously, we know what he’s done as a kick returner. A lot of that is speed but he’s also a powerful guy. He’s a running back but I think we want to be creative in different ways to get him touches and different ways to get him the football.”
Manning also praised the early contributions to the room by true freshman Breece Hall but noted it is probably too early to tell what his role will be in his rookie season with the Cyclones. All of this doesn’t include redshirt sophomore Johnnie Lang, another guy who will likely be asked to step up in order to fill some of the team’s lost offensive production.
Regardless, Iowa State’s running backs have some big shoes to fill and there are plenty of unique skillsets left with the ability to do it.