AMES — There were smiles aplenty among Iowa State’s football players after a long, sticky afternoon ended with a season-opening victory over Tulsa.
None shone brighter than Shontrelle Johnson’s.
Playing his first game in 11 months, Johnson ran for a career-high 120 yards and scored the touchdown that topped off the Cyclones’ 38-23 win over Tulsa on Saturday.
Johnson averaged 6.7 yards on his 18 carries, looked quick hitting the hole and gave the offense a nice boost. All in all, a pretty good return for a guy who once wondered if he’d ever play football again.
“I feel like I was pretty much in the synch of things,” Johnson said. “It acutally kind of slowed down for me a lot and I was able to see a lot.”
Johnson injured his neck against Texas last Oct. 1, the fourth game of the season, and sat out the rest of the year. He had surgery and his return was uncertain.
He would have put himself at risk unless everything healed properly.
“It was definitely a hard time for me, being around the program and football and not being able to take part in anything,” Johnson said.
He was cleared to begin lifting last spring and threw himself into his workouts under the tutelage of strength coach Yancy McKnight. He worked on his speed, gained weight and got stronger.
“I was just focusing on things I could do in the weight room, and I think it makes a big difference on the field,” Johnson said. “I put on 10 pounds since last year, and my numbers in the weight room increased dramatically. I just feel like a more complete back and a stronger back.”
Doctors cleared Johnson to play in July and, thanks to his offseason work, he hit the ground running when camp started early last month.
“Shontrelle’s a hype man,” wide receiver Chris Young said. “In workouts, he’s in there yelling. On the field, everybody’s exhausted, he’s still out there yelling, screaming. He’s just fired up about football. That’s one of the guys you’ll go to war with every day because he brings it.”
James White started at tailback Saturday, but Johnson entered the game on the second series, carrying four times for 20 yards before Steele Jantz hit Josh Lenz on a 43-yard touchdown pass for the Cyclones’ first score.
Johnson had 78 yards after three quarters and went over the 100 mark midway through the fourth quarter, when he slipped out of a tackler’s grasp in the backfield and darted 8 yards for a first down.
“He’s a special player,” ISU coach Paul Rhoads said. “He runs the ball violently, he runs the ball with great passion. He’s a weapon for us. After watching him get carried off the field against UT, it does a lot of wonders for my heart to see him out there.”
Iowa State was clinging to a 31-23 lead when Deon Broomfield intercepted a Tulsa pass and returned it 51 yards. Johnson zipped into the end zone from 5 yards out on the next play, securing the victory with 2 minutes left.
It was his first touchdown since scoring against Kansas on Oct. 30, 2010.
“I didn’t touch the paint last year, so it felt pretty good,” he said. “I had to be patient and wait for it, but thank God it came. It was a big relief. I can go out and just play now. I don’t have to worry about scoring a touchdown.”
If he stays healthy, he should get plenty of opportunities. Then again, after what Johnson went through, just playing is an opportunity to treasure.
“Shontrelle’s an amazing player,” Jantz said. “We’ve known that for a while now. He did a great job, but the truth is, that’s what we expect out of him. We have high expectations for him, and he certainly didn’t disappoint us today.”
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