“We need a big back to come in and play,” Ayeni told Syria, a 6-foot, big-bodied back from Nimitz High School near Houston, the first time the two talked.
The key to that playing time for Syria, he was told, was hard work. If the 205-pound powerful runner put in the time and showed the effort, he could contribute early on. Syria appeared likely to redshirt this season, offering him some time to continue to fill out his big frame and develop into the threatening runner he was recruited to be.
A combination of two things — a running game that is still searching for an identity and an immediate need for a punishing back — had sped up the countdown to Syria’s debut. In fact, that countdown began shortly before the Cyclones traveled to Iowa City and it ticked to completion Saturday against Baylor.
“Do you want to go?” Syria was asked before Iowa State’s in-state rivalry game.
“Yes, sir,” the true freshman told his coaches.
“Good,” he was told, “because we need you to go.”
Syria would travel with Iowa State to Kinnick Stadium, but took in the experience from the sideline. His name vaulted onto Iowa State’s depth chart following its bye week after running back Rob Standard left the team to focus on graduating early.
Iowa State, coach Paul Rhoads would say in the days leading up to Saturday’s game, was continuing to evaluate the situation. If the Cyclones were going to burn Syria’s redshirt, it would mean he would get a workload during the remainder of the season.
That workload began on the final play of the first half against Baylor on Saturday, when Syria took a carry for four yards in his collegiate debut. He ended with eight carries for 15 yards.
“We made a decision to play him, and by that I mean he was going to be part of a package tonight, he was going to get carries with the idea that moving forward with eight games after this one, he was going to become more a part of our offense,” Rhoads said. “We’ve had struggles with short-yardage. We don’t have a back at his physical stature that’s an upper-classmen, so we moved ahead and he’ll be part of a rotation [moving forward].”
For the Cyclones, it is a rotation that also includes senior Aaron Wimberly (5-foot-9, 177 pounds) and redshirt junior DeVondrick Nealy (5-foot-10, 189 pounds). Syria provides more of a bruiser, even if he is only a true freshman.
Iowa State also hopes he provides an answer to a running game that has remained a mystery through the season’s first four games. The team’s three running backs managed a total of 28 yards on 20 carries Saturday and have now rushed for 200 yards on 73 carries (2.7 yards per carry) overall this season.
“It’s a big concern, because there is no running attack,” Rhoads said. “It’s not the backfield, it’s the whole combination of everything that it takes to establish a running game and it needs drastic improvement.”
Syria is still raw and very much a work-in-progress. The freshman said Ayeni has worked with him on pad level, and there is continued focus for the youngster to add weight and muscle in the coming weeks, months and ultimately seasons.
“I still have a lot to learn,” Syria said. “Just be patient, keep being my style, keep being me, keep learning from the older two guys — DeVondrick and Wimberly — they’ve taught me so much. Coach Louis has taught me so much.”
Hard work made Ayeni’s recruiting words come to life Saturday, and now the Cyclones hope that decision leads to an answer.
“Did we run the ball during training camp? Yeah, we ran the ball during training camp. Have we ran it in four games? No, not with any sustained success,” Rhoads said. “I promise you, we’re searching for ways to have angles and have leverage and have plays to improve upon in the running game.”