GRAY: Fastest ISU team in Coach Matt Campbell era must be the smartest one, too

Nov 24, 2018; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Kene Nwangwu (3) runs the football against the Kansas State Wildcats at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

 AMES — Pure speed and plenty of it. 

 It’s perhaps the most vital finishing-touch element for an upper-tier Big 12 football team — once the power, skill and savvy part of the equation has largely been poured into a winning foundation.

 That’s where Iowa State stands entering the 2019 season while settling into #ProveIt mode after back-to-back eight-win seasons.

 And who better to turn to when assessing the Cyclones’ overall team speed this season than the long-considered fastest man on the team, Kene Nwangwu?

Question: Is this the fastest ISU team you’ve been on, top to bottom, position group by position group?

” Yeah, definitely,” said Nwangwu, a 6-1, 205-pound redshirt junior who ranks among the top kick returners in the Big 12. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are in the fours (in the 40-yard dash). “(Fellow running back) Johnnie (Lang) is a fast dude. I know (JUCO transfer receiver) Darren (Wilson’s) fast, (receiver) Landen (Akers) — you’ve got (receiver/punt returner) Tarique (Milton). We’ve got a lot of team speed everywhere, on the offense and defense, so I think that’s been really good for our team.”

 It speaks to ISU’s burgeoning recruiting efforts, which continue to focus on bringing in top athletes and leaders. Speed simply serves as a natural accompaniment to those talents. Of course, it’s never used as a sole basis for evaluation on the trail. But it’s ramping up, nonetheless — and rippling through the Cyclones’ mostly-finished Class of 2020, which currently ranks 33rd nationally and third in the league according to 247 Sports

 “Do we love speed? Yes. And if we want to miss, would we like to miss fast? We would,” ISU head coach Matt Campbell told me on media day. “But I think the reality for us, too, is, the skill is really important and what do we ask each position group to do? We’ve identified that. Everybody in the program understands that and I think what that allows us to do is collectively, then, go and identify and look for that and bring that back to the table. I think that’s a little bit of us being together for a long time to identify what those skills are and then we can dive into, maybe, all the intangibles that we need. That is the starting point for us: the skill set that a young man has.”

 That’s evident at running back, where Nwangwu, Lang and versatile senior Sheldon Croney return, but will be pressed be true freshmen Breece Hall and Jirehl Brock. It’s a crowded room, but it’s a hyper-talented group, as well, which bodes well.

 And it’s true to some degree across the board. There’s more athleticism at linebacker. There’s great speed on the back end as cornerbacks Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young seek to fully emerge as full-time starters, with a slew of true freshmen such as Kym-Mani King hot on their heels for playing time.

 “It’s fun, because we fly around, 11 hats to the ball,” said Johnson, who started the final four games of 2018 as a true freshman. It’s real fun.”

 But, as Campbell noted, speed matters little if it’s a stand-alone attribute. If it’s stripped from an all-inclusive and vital complete package that also includes an acumen for intense film study, it borders on being meaningless.

 “The film room, that makes you play faster,” said senior linebacker Marcel Spears Jr., who recorded a team high-tying three takeaways last season. “But then, when on top of that, you have natural speed — like you said, Anthony Johnson, all those dudes on defense, it does make jobs easier. You want to swarm the ball; you want to get to it and then if you get to it faster, it makes it better.”

 A fraction of a second here and there can make all the difference — whether for a quick-cutting back or receiver, or a hard-hitting linebacker or edge-crashing D-end.

 “I think there’s always been fast guys here and there’s been guys with good size,” said offensive coordinator Tom Manning, who returned to his post after spending one season as the Indianapolis Colts’ tight ends coach. “I think if you look at us now, probably from a few years ago, I think the recruiting efforts have been real good and I think (director of player personnel) Derek Hoodjer, Coach Campbell, (tight ends) Coach (Alex) Golesh and all the guys who’ve been involved in recruiting have had a really good idea of how to continue to push the needle and work on our depth. … I do feel like we’re, as a whole faster, than we’ve been before. I do feel like we’re bigger. Now we have to see what we can do.”

 That’s supposed to entail taking another fleet step forward. And at any speed, that’s an exciting, if difficult, undertaking that starts with knowledge and accelerates via natural talent. 

 “Players play fastest when they know what they’re doing,” defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “That’s the bottom line.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.