AMES — A neck injury is nothing to mess around with. Neither is a possible bout with depression.
Iowa State’s Shontrelle Johnson shouldn’t have to worry about either any more.
The injury kept the running back out of the final nine games of his sophomore season and had doctors flirting with the notion that he may never play football again. Cyclone head coach Paul Rhoads could only describe Johnson’s state over the past year as “depressed and certainly upset.”
But things have changed for the better for the ISU’s top playmaker in the backfield after being medically cleared for all football activities late last month.
“Overjoyed is where he’s at right now,” Rhoads said at the team’s media day Thursday.
Now Johnson, whose only health worry is his wisdom teeth removal that left him unable to talk at media day, is back on the depth chart and helps make the running back crew one of the deeper units on the roster. Leading that group is the incumbent starter James White, who certainly made the most of the opportunity given to him last fall.
White ran for 743 yards last year with 568 of those coming in the nine games Johnson was in street clothes. That production has earned White a spot along with 51 others on the Doak Walker watch list that will honor the best rusher in the nation.
“It’s an honor to be on that list. I’ve been working hard over the years to put myself in that position,” he said. “ But I’m just going to be the same me, so I won’t get all excited about it. I’ll be the same humble guy about it ready to make plays come game day.”
With White back in a similar role, Johnson coming in as the home run hitter and Jeff Woody as the bruiser, the backfield now looks largely like a triple threat. Some may call that a logjam with carries needing to be spread a little thinner, but how they get doled out is still up in the air as the Cyclones head into fall camp.
“I’d say very similar to what we’ve done in the last three years,” said Rhoads. “I think as you go into games, when a guy has a hot hand, you feed him the ball. As we go through training camp, if one guy separates and shows us he’s the dominant guy, he’ll get the bulk of the plays.”
White is the clear starter as ISU moves toward its season opener against Tulsa Sept. 1 at Jack Trice Stadium. That’s the role he became accustomed to last year and should jump into it again, even if things are a little different behind him.
“It’s going to be pretty much the same but with more competition and more depth,” White said. “I feel like all the backs are coming into the season knowing the system. The younger guys have a year under their belts.”
White, Johnson and Woody are all entering their junior seasons with each holding on to their own niche. Woody is the consistent guy between the tackles and isn’t shy to put his shoulder down in a crowd whenever the Cyclones need it.
“I’m 45 pounds bigger than the next guy,” Woody said. “So if there’s ever any tough yards that we need to get, I think my body type and the way I play is more conducive to getting a third-and-1, even earning four yards on first down, wearing down a defense or — like we did in the Kansas game last year — grinding out those last four minutes.”
Meanwhile, the other two backs will be looking for the defenders’ shoulders going down to make a move and get to the sideline.
“Shontrelle is the kind of guy who can take a 3-yard play 80 yards. You never know when that is going to hit and that’s so exciting to have that kind of pop in the backfield,” Woody added. “James is a straight-line kind of guy, Shontrelle is a make-em-miss kind of guy. And I’m neither one of those.”
Rhoads mentioned the quarterback position — to be occupied by either Jared Barnett or Steele Jantz — as another source of rushing yards, especially after Barnett was second on the team gaining 437 yards a year ago. The head coach hopes it all comes together and wraps into a solid running game to relieve the pressure on the quarterbacks, who must improve on their 51 percent completion percentage.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Courtney Messingham certainly hopes for the same thing in his first season on the sideline as he gets his feet wet breaking in the offense.
“The only mandate I’ve given (Messingham), is that we run the football and run the ball effectively,” said Rhoads. “We think we need to be a run-first football team to set the pass up with the run game.”
A deep stable in the backfield figures to make that task at least a little bit easier.