“All-down backs” Abu Sama, Carson Hansen fuel optimism in Iowa State’s running backs room

Nov 18, 2023; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Abu Sama III (24) runs the football against the Texas Longhorns at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports 

AMES — One broke a 38-year-old Iowa high school state record in the long jump. The other became Minnesota’s first two-time Gatorade player of the year award winner. 

 Together, Iowa State sophomore tailbacks Abu Sama and Carson Hansen form a one-two punch in the backfield that should pose a problem for opposing defenses this fall.

 “(Hansen’s) someone who — along with Abu — can definitely be an all-down back,” new Cyclones running backs coach and assistant head coach Tyler Roehl said.

 That means it will be difficult to keep either Hansen or Sama off the field, which is both an intriguing and potentially problematic prospect for ISU. Both backs showed bursts of brilliance last season as the running game as a whole fluctuated wildly between feast and famine mode.

 Sama produced a legendary performance in the Cyclones’ 42-35 win last season over Kansas State. The 5-11, 200-pound Southeast Polk High School graduate rushed for 276 yards and three touchdowns — all of which spanned 60 yards or more — in that snow-swept game in Manhattan. He became the first Big 12 back since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson to score two rushing touchdowns spanning 70 or more yards in a single game.

 “His eagerness to learn, his determination, his work ethic is unbelievable,” Roehl said. “Just some of the small details — my role for him is alignment, assignment, read, key, track. After that, cut it loose and play fast.”

 All of which makes Sama an “all-down back” just like Hansen. Sama will likely be the starter in the Aug. 31 season opener against North Dakota, but Hansen should also see plenty of snaps while promising true freshman Dylan Lee tries to carve out a role alongside transfer Jaylon Jackson and former four-star recruit Arlen Harris, Jr. 

 “He catches the ball well,” Roehl said of the 6-2, 215-pound Hansen, who totaled 182 all-purpose yards last season. “He has the ability to catch the ball and turn a four to five-yard gain into an explosive play. He’s instinctive and his ability to use his body in space — really good body control for a 215-plus pound back — is above average.”

 That’s where Roehl aims to get the Cyclones’ running game after languishing in 11th place in the Big 12 in yards per game (119.9) last season. ISU rushed for 87 yards or fewer in six games, so finding consistent production on the ground is of paramount importance to Roehl, who joined Cyclone head coach Matt Campbell’s staff after serving as tight ends and fullbacks coach at his alma mater, North Dakota State.

 “I think, as a whole, the most connected units, the most connected teams, are going to be the ones that are extremely successful,” Roehl said. “So to continue to have a group that invests in each other, that rallies around each other, that pours into each others’ success — that’s what’s going to propel this group. And what I see is a group that’s pulling the rope in the same direction. They’re working hard for each other, not against each other.”

 Sama and Hansen certainly are. Both expect to provide a significant spike in production after solid rookie seasons and both are happy sharing carries and responsibilities in the backfield.

 “We’re always just staying together (and) checking up on each other,” Sama said. “I feel like if we all keep on doing that stuff, just checking up on each other, it will definitely grow.”

 Hansen stood on the sideline when Sama dashed though the snow for a 71-yard touchdown run that kicked off his breakthrough performance against the Wildcats. And even then, he exemplified the ultra-supportive approach Roehl expects from his backs this season and beyond.

 “I was really juiced up for him,” Hansen said. “To see him have the season he did last year was special to see. We talked about always having joy for other people’s accomplishments and it’s just been really cool to see him be an amazing back. I’m just really excited for him.”