Iowa State sophomore running back Jirehl Brock runs into the end zone for a touchdown in the second quarter against TCU on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames.
It is almost too easy to compare Iowa State’s search for a starting tailback this fall to the program’s battle at the same position back in 2019.
Back then, the Cyclones were looking for the replacement for All-American David Montgomery. There were a few more or less known commodities in Kene Nwangwu, Sheldon Croney and Johnnie Lang.
Then, there was the pair of exciting young freshmen, former four-star recruits Jirehl Brock and Breece Hall.
Obviously, we all remember the story. The Cyclones shuffled through backs throughout the entire first half of the season until Hall exploded onto the scene with his breakout performance on the road at West Virginia.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Hall became one of the greatest running backs in Big 12 history, twice winning the league’s Offensive Player of the Year Award, and finished his three seasons in Ames as one of the best players to ever wear an Iowa State uniform.
Now, the Cyclones are back in the same boat, looking to replace an All-American with a few players who enter fall camp as more known commodities — the aforementioned Brock, plus redshirt freshman Eli Sanders and sophomore Deon Silas.
And, there’s another exciting young guy who is receiving significant buzz behind the scenes in true freshman Cartevious Norton.
“There are similarities (to 2019) just because you don’t have your starter all-conference, All-American type of guy returning,” Iowa State running backs and wide receivers coach Nate Scheelhaase said on Monday. “I think the exciting part about this group is that you’ve got a lot of guys that I think we’ve seen behind the scenes have some really, really good moments.”
Brock is the easy choice as the group’s steadying force, perhaps the unit’s most complete back with the ability to run between the tackles for tough yardage and make plays in space.
He’s proven himself as one of the program’s best backfield pass protectors, earning significant playing time over the last two seasons in that role despite sitting behind his classmate in Hall.
That guy alone has to give the staff some level of confidence in their group of tailbacks. Fans maybe haven’t seen Brock on the field making plays with the ball in his hands every Saturday over the last several falls, but that doesn’t mean his impact hasn’t been felt within the program.
“You got a guy like Jirhel, who’s made a ton of plays on the field,” Scheelhaase said. “I think there’s probably even just a greater level of confidence that you’ll not only have maybe one guy that steps up to that challenge but multiple guys that do.”
Those somebodies certainly could be one of the two underclassmen who joined the program last season. Deon Silas appeared in five games last season for Iowa State, burning his redshirt while tallying 13 rushes for 75 yards and two scores.
Standing only 5-foot-8, Silas is a unique player who is incredibly difficult to tackle in space with a unique ability to change directions and make people miss.
Sanders is one of the program’s fastest players, proven by the fact he out-ran former Iowa high school track star, and Cyclone wide receiver turned cornerback, Darien Porter for a long touchdown reception during the Cyclones’ practice on Monday.
“(Sanders) is a guy that can make big plays, explosive plays, not only catching the ball out of the backfield but hit some runs,” Scheelhaase said. “He can run the ball downhill, finding creases in between the tackles, which is good to see.”
The wild card in the group, and the one that will be the most interesting to track throughout fall camp, is Norton, the former three-star recruit from Waycross, Ga. who emerged as one of the darlings of Iowa State’s spring practices after enrolling early last January.
Time and time again, the 5-foot-11, 212-pound rookie’s name has come up when asking about the program’s young players. Scheelhaase can easily explain why that buzz has been building.
“Run really hard through people’s faces,” the former quarterback at Illinois said when asked what Norton has done to impress the staff. “That’s probably the best way to describe what he’s done, and we haven’t been live yet, but that’s probably a good thing in a reverse way. I think there are some defenders that are glad we haven’t had to be live against that dude, because he runs hard, man. He is not afraid to run through somebody. I think that makes everybody excited.”
This brings us to the biggest difference between that race for the carries during fall camp 2019 and today. Back then, the coaching staff was just hoping somebody would seize the job, regardless of who that person might have been.
When nobody did, it opened the door for Hall to put a stranglehold on that position down the road.
Now, the staff is confident there might be multiple people capable of taking hold of that position and forcing their way onto the football field consistently on Saturdays.
We just don’t know who it will be yet.
“At that moment (in 2019), I think we were just looking for somebody and hoping for somebody,” Scheelhaase said. “I think we have more confidence that it’s gonna be somebody. We’re just excited to see who those somebodies end up being.”