AMES — It’s been a week and a half since Iowa State running back Shontrelle Johnson heard the words he’d longed to hear: “You’re cleared.”
A smile returned to the face of the fleet-footed Floridian, who suffered a broken neck in last season’s Oct. 1 loss to Texas.
Until then, his football future rested in the hands of physicians.
Now it’s finally returned to his shoulders — and he’s running with it.
“Being a football player, we think we’re invincible sometimes,” said Johnson, who stayed in shape during the several months doctors spent discerning whether he could safely play the game again. “You’re like, ‘I can do it, coach. Let me get in, let me get in!’ But those guys knew what they were doing.”
So does Johnson.
And that’s run fast, threading through holes large and small.
He averaged 4.8 yards per carry before the injury last season — including a 108-yard effort in the Sept. 3 triple-overtime win over Iowa.
“Any time he touches the ball you feel like, boy, an electric thing can happen,” said ISU offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, who enjoys a wealth of backfield options, including James White, Jeff Woody and DeVondrick Nealy.
Johnson’s once in-doubt reemergence at running back comes at a propitious time.
White led the team with 819 yards and eight rushing touchdowns last season and Woody rumbled for six touchdowns, including the game-winner against Oklahoma State.
Nealy and fellow redshirt freshman Rob Standard have opened eyes in practice, but now can flash their skills on the field.
All of which means it’s a deep position for the run-first, spread-based Cyclones, who ranked 39th in rushing offense last season (174.2 yards per game).
“I’m glad Shontrelle Johnson’s back,” said White, who was the No. 2 back when Johnson sustained the scary injury. “It’s a blessing and I feel all of us bring a lot of versatility to the running game.”
BIG TIME: As Cyclone defensive coordinator Wally Burnham eyed his players while they assembled for media day Thursday at Jack Trice Stadium, something dawned on him.
“I told (defensive line coach) Curtis Bray this morning — I was just kind-of walking around and I said, ‘This is the first time I think we look like a big-time college football team,’” Burnham said. “And that’s not being negative toward the other groups. It’s just that we’ve gotten longer athletes, we’ve gotten broader athletes.”
ISU ranked 95th nationally in total defense last season — a number skewed somewhat by the Big 12’s explosive offenses.
Nose guard Jake McDonough expects marked improvement, especially up front.
“We’re putting up our best numbers in the weight room,” McDonough said. “Guys are in shape. But that’s all good talk. When it comes to the field, we’ve got to prove ourselves and this is the year to do it. We haven’t done it the last couple years.”
BIG BACKUPS: ISU senior all-Big 12 linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein reside on every preseason, position-based award watch list for good reason.
But Knott and Klein, who combined for 231 tackles last season, are truly bullish on their backups, Jevohn Miller and Jeremiah George.
“If A.J. or myself needs a break, you can’t say, ‘Oh, man, we’ve got to let this guy go in,’” Knott said. “Now it’s, ‘OK, we’re fine’ —a pat on the back, get in there kind of thing. And that’s what you you have to have. You can’t have a big downfall from one guy to another and we don’t have that anymore. And that’s really refreshing for, I’m sure, the coaches and everybody in the linebacker room.”
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