Third in a series
By Rob Gray, correspondent
Shontrelle Johnson thought he had it all figured out.
Until he met Alexander Robinson.
“He definitely was a mentor,” said Johnson, a speedy and agile sophomore who this season succeeds Robinson — one of the Cyclones’ all-time greats — as the team’s featured running back. “Things I didn’t understand as a freshman that I thought I did understand, I see now, going through a season with him, I wasn’t ready. That’s what prepared me throughout the whole process of his senior year. Just being able to watch his movement, watch him as a player.”
Johnson’s poised for a breakthrough after learning under ISU’s fourth-leading rusher of all time.
And he’ll have help — with James White, Jeff Woody and Duran Hollis vying for carries along with recently named starting quarterback Steele Jantz.
“He’s an exciting player, he’s a very violent, physical runner,” Cyclones Coach Paul Rhoads said of the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Johnson. “As durable as I believe he is, it’s hard to stay healthy at that position.”
Case in point: Robinson, who despite battling injuries, churned out roughly 50 percent of the Cyclones’ yards on the ground in the past three seasons.
“He pretty much showed us the ropes,” said Johnson, who averaged 6.2 yards per carry last season and showed flashes of the game-changing explosiveness ISU’s offense needs.
The Cyclones ranked 72nd nationally in rushing last season, averaging 3.8 yards per game.
Johnson’s confident both those numbers will climb in 2011.
“It’s been the talk throughout spring,” Johnson said of increasing big-play capacity out of the backfield. “We have a steady group, a stable group of running backs and each one of them has their own thing to bring to the table. Everybody just has high expectations for the running backs and I think we’re going to do nothing but prove (that).”
White is known for breakaway straight-line speed. Hollis is adept at changing directions and making defenders miss.
Woody, a former walk-on from Pleasant Hill, racked up the second most rushing yards among returning Cyclones — 191 on 47 carries in 2010.
“(He’s) a nice change up,” Rhoads said. “As a defensive coordinator I always hated preparing for two different styles of running backs — the tackling changes that take place with that, the types of runs that take place with that. So we get that with Jeff, as well as a great power runner down by the goal line and in short yardage.”
Woody said he also expects to play some fullback as Johnson, White and Hollis share carries.
“It’s still a work in progress but I consider that as of last spring I hadn’t done any blocking before and now I’m getting to be decently proficient in it,” Woody, a 6-foot, 235-pounder, said.
Johnson, with Robinson’s help, has matured from understudy to leading man.
“(We have) a lot of big play ability, guys that can make guys miss in open space,” Johnson said. “Guys that can take a 10-yard screen play and make it into a 60-yard touchdown. Things like that. Things that I felt maybe the team lacked a few years ago, but it’s here now.”
Projected starter: Shontrelle Johnson
Backups: Jeff Woody, James White, Duran Hollis
Cyclones need …: Better backfield production on third down conversions, where they ranked 79th last season (37.6 percent).