Ames, Iowa — In a scrimmage last week, Iowa State running back Shontrelle Johnson bounced outside for a run that initially appeared so hopeless even coach Paul Rhoads stopped watching.
A jubilant roar from the offense brought Rhoads’ vision back to his speedy sophomore, who broke out of a tight scrum with a stiff-arm, squirmed away from a pair of open-field tackles and sped to the end zone.
It was the kind of play that Rhoads, now in his third season at Iowa State, has wanted to see more of since he arrived in Ames.
Though Iowa State is about as young as it can be at tailback, Rhoads is optimistic that the inexperienced quartet of Johnson, Duran Hollis, James White and Jeff Woody can provide the explosiveness that’s been lacking from the offense.
“Very excited about our running back position,” Rhoads said Tuesday. “The position is very dynamic right now. Shontrelle, Duran Hollis, James White all have the ability to make a lot of people miss on one given play.”
It’s still tough to handicap the race to replace departed star Alexander Robinson, who graduated after rushing for 946 yards and nine touchdowns for the Cyclones (5-7) in 2010. Heading into Saturday’s spring game, it appears that Johnson has distanced himself from the pack by the slightest of margins.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder out of Deland, Fla., who chose the Cyclones over the likes of Florida and Georgia Tech, split backup duties with Woody a year ago. He averaged 6.2 yards on just 35 carries in his first season at Iowa State, putting up 102 yards in a win over Texas Tech and adding a 33-yard TD run to help beat Kansas.
“That’s pretty much my game. Shifty, quick and being able to make guys miss,” Johnson said.
That’s not Woody’s game at all. The sophomore from nearby Pleasant Hill, Iowa, is a bruiser at 6-feet and 232 pounds. Though Iowa State runs a spread offense, the Cyclones will still need a go-to guy like Woody in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
“It’s sort of a fullback/tailback hybrid,” Woody said of his role. “When you need the tough, necessary yards, then I’m kind of the guy that you need to go to.”
James White, a sophomore with a nearly identical frame to Johnson, has all of 12 career yards to his name, though Rhoads singled him out Tuesday for progress this spring.
About all anyone knows about 5-foot-9, 203-pound redshirt freshman Duran Hollis is that his nickname is “Duck,” though he’s athletic enough to have earned serious Division I interest in basketball as well.
“James White has just got this blazing speed,” Woody said. “Duck is kind of a combination of just mix and match the skills from the other three. He’s got a good, balanced ability. The diversity of the group adds to its strength.”
Iowa State also has a tight race going for the starting quarterback job, and Rhoads said that won’t be settled until fall. Jerome Tiller and junior-college transfer Steele Jantz are both considered athletic enough to handle the significant running duties Iowa State asks from its quarterbacks.
Still, a solid running game could really help either quarterback get settled as a first-year starter.
The depth the Cyclones have at running back should give them plenty of options and teams can never have enough tailbacks. Johnson is hoping that he can make it tough for the coaching staff to keep him off the field.
“The more I carry the ball the more I get a feel for the defense. That’s what kind of back I think I am,” Johnson said.