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Iowa State vs. the Big 12: Running Backs

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Led by sophomore standout Mike Warren, Iowa State should be set at running back — if Warren can stay healthy.

NCAA Football: Texas at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s edition of the WRNL position previews covers one of the most talented positions on the roster -- running backs.

Talent

One of the most exciting and talented players to put on a Cyclone uniform last season was redshirt freshman Mike Warren. The now-sophomore didn’t really emerge until the third game of the season against, interestingly enough, Matt Campbell’s Toledo squad. Over the final 10 games of the 2015 season, Warren rushed for 1,311 yards and found the endzone five times, averaging 5.9 yards per carry.

Outside a handful of standouts, Iowa State doesn’t exactly have a rich history with running backs. If Warren were to repeat his 2015 statline, he would already be seventh in school history in rushing yards with two remaining years of eligibility. Warren’s great season didn’t go unnoticed; he was named to this year’s preseason All-Big 12 team alongside WR Allen Lazard. Simply put, Mike Warren had a hell of a freshman campaign a year ago and that was with a... uh... questionable O-line and offensive coordinator(s).

Luckily for Warren, a new staff is in place this year and there are good pieces elsewhere on offense, headlined by Lazard and Joel Lanning. Assuming new offensive coordinator Tom Manning is a halfway-capable playcaller and the offensive line isn’t crippled by injuries, a healthy Mike Warren (with a full season as the starter) should reach 1,300 yards again and could climb above 1,500 if things go well.

Depth

As is nearly always the case at Iowa State, there aren’t any proven commodities behind the starter. Last year’s backup, Joshua Thomas, transferred after the season. In addition to returning players Mitchell Harger and Sheldon Croney Jr., there are two true freshmen who figure to be the most likely candidates to replace Thomas: Kene Nwangwu and David Montgomery.

Nwangwu might not have a Big 12 body yet (6-foot-1, 188 pounds), but he certainly has Big 12 athleticism. He won the Texas class 5A state title in the high jump with a mark of 6’10” and ran the 100 meter dash in 10.71 seconds, a record at his high school.

Montgomery is the thunder to Nwangwu’s lightning. At 5-foot-11, 222-pounds, he can immediately fill the short-yardage void left by Thomas’ departure. Harger and Croney have a chance to get a few carries as well, but neither of them have the size of Montgomery, and a big back is what Iowa State needs to complement Warren. If I had to guess, I would say Montgomery gets the most carries besides Warren simply due to his size and strength.

Stacking Up Against the Big 12

There are some really, really good running backs in the Big 12. Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine has rushed for over 3,000 yards along with 37 touchdowns in his first two years. As if the Sooners weren’t scary enough already, they also have Joe Mixon, who rushed for 753 yards on 6-point-freaking-7 yards per carry in 2015.

Baylor’s Shock Linwood leads the Big 12 in rushing yards since 2013 (along with being a strong candidate for Best Name Award) and he’s back for his senior year. Down in Stillwater, Oklahoma State will likely be led by Barry J. Sanders, whose name should sound familiar to football fans everywhere. Even though he won’t win the Heisman like his dad did back in 1988, Sanders should still have a productive season as the Cowboys’ primary back.

Running back is probably one of the only units in which Iowa State is among the best in the Big 12, and that’s all due to Mike Warren. If Warren has a good year, Lanning should have more chances to throw deep against defenses that creep forward to slow down Warren. A good running game opens up the deep game, and Allen Lazard is exactly the type of receiver you want going for a deep ball.

I’d say Iowa State’s running backs corps ranks in the top three of the Big 12 along with Oklahoma and Baylor. Texas could be in that mix as well, but they lack a go-to RB -- last season, the Longhorns had five players rush for over 400 yards, but not one of them reached 700.

Outlook

Running back is an obvious unit of strength for the Cyclones as the 2016 season approaches. The two big worries for ISU fans in regards to the running game should be 1) Mike Warren’s health, and 2) the offensive line’s ability to stay healthy and give Warren running lanes.

Warren still has room to improve, of course. TRIGGER WARNING: remember the game against Kansas State in Manhattan last year? Iowa State lost four (!!) fumbles that game, including two by Warren. While I wouldn’t necessarily call Warren fumble-prone, ball security is an area where he could improve. Additionally, he only scored five times last season. Some of that was due to Joshua Thomas’ role as the goal-line back, but Warren needs to develop into a guy who can finish the job at the 1-yard line or on 3rd-and-inches.

If Warren plays like he did in 2015, Iowa State’s offense should be in a great spot this year. Running back isn’t a position with a ton of depth, but nobody can deny the talent in the Cyclone backfield.