2015 Camp Unit Previews
You're Mark Mangino. Your top returning running back has 24 career carries for 109 yards and has one touchdown to his name: a receiving touchdown against Texas Tech. That man is Tyler Brown and he sits atop your depth chart.
When Mangino sat down early in the off season to redesign his running attack he had no idea that DeVondrick Nealy wouldn't return in 2015. Now it's up to Mangino to find a way to incorporate the running backs in to what was at times a pass first scheme in 2014. As I chronicled in the past, running the ball in Ames is important, and if Iowa State is to get back to the postseason in 2015 they'll do it mostly on the legs of young men who were watching from the sidelines last year.
This is your 2015 preview of Iowa State's running backs.
The Depth Chart
Wars of attrition create unlikely leaders and that's the role Tyler Brown finds himself in during fall camp. As the most experienced running back on the roster he gets the de facto nod to be first on the depth chart. Whether or not he remains there on September 5th all depends on whether or not he can hold off Mike Warren.
Although Brown had limited snaps last season he exhibited something that an Iowa State running back has lacked the past few years: vision. Aaron Wimberly had it, but was never showcased significantly until late in 2014, but the way Brown moved between the tackles was akin to Alexander Robinson. He was patient when he needed to be, and aggressive when required. Brown isn't going to make a lot of guys miss, but he finds the right seam and maximizes his yardage because of it. No dancing, just running.
The X Factor
Mike Warren is the potential difference maker in the backfield after having a stellar high school career in Oklahoma. The coaching staff has mentioned multiple times that Warren was in the mix for carries in 2014 had it not been for a training camp injury and shoulder surgery later in the season.
Warren boasts the oft-sought after size and skill for a Big XII running back and will play against Northern Iowa. There's absolutely no doubt about that. While Brown can be a functional back cut from the same cloth as James White; it's Warren who brings potential game breaking ability to the table and if he begins pushing Brown hard for playing time then things are definitely trending in the right direction.
A Relevant Stat
Alexander Robinson in 2009: 232 attempts, 1,195 yards, 5.2 YPC, and six touchdowns. Last 1,000 yard rusher for Iowa State and the last, and only, bowl win for Paul Rhoads.
Not including Robinson's 2010 season, the next best performer was James White with 159 attempts, 743 yards, 4.7 YPC, and eight touchdowns in 2011.
Brown or Warren don't have to be 1,000 yard rushers for this year's offense to have success, but if one of them breaks that barrier then be prepared to be watching a game in December.
Brown, Warren, and Josh Thomas form a formidable trio that combines for over 2,000 yards rushing and double digit touchdowns. One back goes over 1,000 yards with one serving as a change of pace and the other a short yardage back, all while picking up the blitz and keeping Sam B. Richardson clean.
More of the same since 2012 where running backs go down to injury, the per carry average remains near or below four yards, and Richardson leads all rushers with over 500 yards. This once again leads to a sub-.500 season and sends Paul Rhoads packing.
The Final Verdict
It's tough to rank this unit as second to last but someone had to fall in to the slot. The top two are talented, but unproven. After that the depth disappears. Gone are the days of a stable of running backs to go in at a moment's notice, but did that ever matter? Even more than a quarterback, the running back is a product of his offensive line and inconsistency has plagued the Cyclone rushing attack since the departures of Kelechi Osemele, Hayworth Hicks, and Tom Herman.
Reality is that Mark Mangino and Brandon Blaney need to solve the riddle of creating an effective rushing attack and the running back is just a gear in what we hope is a well oiled machine. If Mangino really sought a way to cure the ills of last season's ground game then it won't matter who he plugs in the backfield. They're just there to take the ball, hit their holes, and get their yards.
And stay healthy.