ISU hopes to show off its RB depth at spring game

AMES – The absence of Iowa State senior running back Shontrelle Johnson hasn’t slowed the Cyclones down at all this spring.

That’s one of the benefits of having half a dozen backs who can play.

The Cyclones run six deep at tailback, assuming Johnson recovers from an ACL tear and returns this fall. Each has done enough to excite the coaching staff this spring, and all six could play in 2013.

Iowa State will showcase its depth at running back when it wraps up spring practice with an intra-squad scrimmage at 2 p.m. today at Jack Trice Stadium.

“It’s a good problem to have, to try to figure out,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said.

Johnson is just one of three senior running backs with an edge for playing time next fall.

James White will likely close out spring practice as the incumbent starter after rushing for 505 yards – just 1 more than Johnson – with a team-high 5.1 yards per carry in 2012. Jeff Woody will continue to be the short-yardage specialist.

But the glut at tailback forced Woody to explore other positions in an effort to expand his role, and he’s been taking practice snaps at tight end since last season.

Woody would probably only see the field as a tight end if that position suffered a series of injuries. But the fact that Woody would even work out there speaks to how stacked Iowa State is at running back.

“He’s making us a better offense, making us a better football team by doing a number of things. Things he hasn’t really done at all, or at a level that we need him to the three previous years,” Rhoads said of Woody. “That’s physical blocking. That’s moving around, motion as an H-back, that’s even lining up in the traditional tight end location.”

There’s a trio of youngsters and newcomers that have pushed the senior trio this spring.

The most intriguing one is former junior college star Aaron Wimberly. The Cyclones have been buzzing about him since the day he signed from Iowa Western.

Wimberly was one of a staggering 16 Iowa Western players to land FBS scholarships from last year’s team. He rushed for 1,150 yards and 13 TDs as the team went 12-0 and won the junior college national title.

Wimberly is just 5-foot-9 and 173 pounds, but he’s already among the fastest players on the team.

“Wimberly has burst onto the scene much like we hoped he would. He’s very dynamic. He’s fast. He doesn’t need much of a hole to get through and catches the ball extremely well,” Rhoads said.

Sophomore DeVondrick Nealy got into every game last season, even though he carried it just 16 times with three receptions while battling through a nasty case of pink eye.

Rhoads said Tuesday that Nealy has had an impressive spring both running and catching the ball.

Nealy and fellow sophomore Rob Standard are both 5-foot-10, but Standard has about 30 pounds on Nealy and prefers to try to run through defenders rather than around them. Rhoads said Tuesday that Standard could fit into the role occupied by Woody in the future.

Iowa State ranked just 68th nationally with 1,951 yards rushing in 2012. But the Cyclones have three starters back on the offensive line, six potential difference makers at running back and a quarterback, Sam Richardson, who might end up carrying the ball more than anyone else.

That’s a lot of overall depth in the run game. If the Cyclones can take advantage of it all, they should be in position to improve on the 24.5 points they scored per game last season.