Cyclones still in search of lead running back

AMES (AP) — Iowa State began the season with five running backs and coach Matt Campbell hoping that one would step forward and prove he could be the No. 1 guy.

After four games, that hasn’t happened. No one yet has given the team the production it needs from the position and as a result, the overall running game has been hit and miss.

Iowa State is ninth in the Big 12 in rushing yardage and last in rushing attempts, forcing the offense to rely heavily on the throwing of quarterback Brock Purdy. Discounting the yards Purdy has lost the six times he has been sacked, he would lead the team in rushing.

And there’s been a decided lack of big plays no matter who’s running the ball. Iowa State’s longest run this year is 29 yards — by backup quarterback Re-al Mitchell. The longest gain by a running back: 19 yards by Kene Nwangwu.

“I think we’re more consistent (running the ball) than we’ve been,” Campbell said Tuesday. “Are we as consistent as we need to be? Probably not. But again, I think it’s an area for us that we’ve got a lot of confidence in what we can do.”

All five backs are listed on the depth chart for Saturday’s home game with TCU, with senior Sheldon Croney at the top. Croney has run the ball more often than the other backs and is the best blocker, but he averages only 3.1 yards a carry.

Sophomore Johnnie Lang and Nwangwu, a junior, are next in line, followed by freshmen Breece Hall and Jirehl Brock. Neither freshman played in last Saturday’s 23-21 loss at Baylor, where the Cyclones (2-2) had to abandon any serious thoughts of running the ball in the second half after falling behind 20-0.

The Cyclones were left scrambling for a No. 1 back after David Montgomery, who rushed for 1,216 yards a year ago, gave up his senior season to enter the NFL draft. He’s now with the Chicago Bears.

“It will be really interesting to see how the season emerges and who emerges at that position,” Campbell said. “It’s a tough question because we’d all love David Montgomery and David Montgomery’s a great player. But now you’re trying to figure out who is that guy, what is that situation for you. We’ve been fortunate that some guys have stepped up and done some great things for us so far. Has that one single person emerged yet? They haven’t.”

If anyone’s close, it might be Lang. He’s averaging 4.8 yards a carry and scored two touchdowns at Baylor, a 3-yard run on which the blocking was so good he wasn’t touched and a 12-yard reception when Purdy found him wide open after he drifted out of the backfield.

“Johnnie is a guy that I’ve got great confidence in just because of that trust factor,” Campbell said. “I think he’s a guy that when his number’s been called, he’s always been able to be the most consistent guy.”

Yet Campbell sees all five backs continuing to compete for the job and is hesitant to rule any of them out.

“Everyone is competitive in that room,” Lang said. “So if you’re not pushing yourself, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb.”

Campbell would like to see someone stick out for the right reasons.

Notes: Defensive end JaQuan Bailey, who shares the school’s career lead in sacks, is doubtful for Saturday’s game because of a lower leg injury sustained at Baylor, Campbell said. But he said Bailey’s backup, sophomore Zach Petersen, has been outstanding this season so he see little, if any, dropoff.

“I think the one thing about Zach is he’s played the best of all our defensive linemen up to this date anyway,” Campbell said.