As the words flow from the mouth of running backs coach Louis Ayeni, the excitement is palpable. He describes each of his runners in vivid detail as if he were watching them bust through holes and roll past defenders. Finally, the second-year coach has his guys.
Ayeni has spent countless hours breaking down film, attempting to find the next big back. He has spent more hours in the past year shaping the ones he already has. So as he begins to talk about his stable of runners, well, he describes them like so.
“Mike [Warren] and Martinez [Syria], they’re young thoroughbreds,” Ayeni says. “They’ve got a lot of ability and a chance to, really this spring, put themselves in really good position come the fall to be the guy.”
He continues with Warren: “Mike is a slasher. He’s got speed, he’s got quickness, he’s got great hands and he’s a really, all-around good player.”
Then he moves to Syria: “Martinez is that big back we’ve been talking about. Kind of the bulldozer, run into you, run through you type-of-guy.”
Ayeni, really, is only just beginning.
When Iowa State begins spring ball in less than one month on March 3, it will do so with quite possibly the greenest backfield in the Big 12. Gone is Aaron Wimberly from graduation. Gone, by choice, is DeVrondrick Nealy. With the veterans behind them, the Cyclones will start from scratch.
The oldest running back will be redshirt sophomore Tyler Brown, who had all of 24 carries last season. Next is true sophomore Syria, who had 20 carries after his redshirt was lifted and before he suffered a concussion. Warren, who could be the season-opening feature back, will be a redshirt freshman with no college experience.
“Then you bring in these two hosses as freshmen,” Ayeni says.
Oh, yeah. After Devine Ozigbo flipped in the final weeks leading up to Signing Day, Ayeni fired up the film. Then the Cyclones targeted Joshua Thomas and Sheldon Croney and turned one into two when they added both to their stable Wednesday.
Now, Ayeni’s excitement shows again.
He talks about Thomas: “Joshua, another big back who can run through you and is a punisher for four quarters.”
And moves on to Croney: “Sheldon is a slasher with speed. He’s really smooth in and out of his cuts.”
Both new running backs certainly fit the bill of what Iowa State is looking for. Thomas was part of three straight state championships at Buford High School in Georgia who had a laundry list of offers before eventually choosing Iowa State after visiting Wisconsin late. Croney, meanwhile, rushed for 2,000-plus yards as a junior and senior and drew interest from a number of west coast schools.
Out of all 16 high school signees in the 2015 class, the search for who might have the best chance to play immediately rests with those two names.
“Those will be the two we’ll certainly look at very hard. I think they both will get equal opportunity,” said Paul Rhoads before cautioning. “You know me, I don’t play a freshman unless he’s going to play.”
In total, Iowa State’s stable of five runners will enter the spring with a combined 44 carries for 166 yards last season.
“I get to mold them,” Ayeni says with a look of excitement. “Same thing happened to me when I was at Toledo. I got some young guys in there. I got to build them up, build them up, build them up. It’s funny. When everybody watches Toledo on film they say, ‘Man, they’ve got a lot of good backs.’ Well, yeah, I left them a lot of good backs. I got to mold those guys. That’s the same thing I’m going to try to do here.”
Now, Louis Ayeni has his guys.
“The competition in the room is at an all-time high and our character is going to be at an all-time high,” Ayeni said. “They’re all young and hungry, they all have chips on their shoulders. For me that gets exciting, because those are the type of guys I want. I need guys who are going to go get it.”