By Rob Gray
AMES — DeVondrick Nealy sensed his first true opening.
Too bad he couldn’t see it.
The nimble third-string Iowa State tailback has been battling pink eye for nearly three weeks — and it struck right when it appeared his role in the Cyclones’ offense would expand.
“I had a couple people telling me, ‘I didn’t know grown-ups get pink eye,’” said Nealy, who looks to see the field in Saturday’s 6 p.m. Fox Sports Net-televised Big 12 game against Baylor at Jack Trice Stadium. “It’s just one of those things that unfortunately just happened to me.”
Nealy’s vision has mostly cleared, thanks to a lengthy healing process.
And that’s good news for ISU (4-3, 1-3), which seeks to improve upon its ninth-place conference standing in rushing yards per game (108.5).
The Cyclones haven’t fielded a 100-yard runner since Shontrelle Johnson racked up 120 on the ground in the season-opening win over Tulsa.
It’s the longest span — six games — ISU has gone without a 100-yard rusher in the Coach Paul Rhoads era.
“As a running backs corps, we’ve not done the best job of pressing holes or getting downfield and creating explosive plays,” said fullback Jeff Woody, who scored the Cyclones’ only touchdown in last week’s 31-10 loss at Oklahoma State. “So there’s things we need to improve on.”
Nealy exudes explosiveness.
He’s carried the ball 12 times for 82 yards in spot duty this season — an average of 6.8 yards per tote.
He’s also emerged as a vital cog to the Cyclones’ ground-based fortunes as starter James White continues to heal two weeks after undergoing knee surgery.
White may or may not play this week against the defensively-challenged Bears, Rhoads said.
His value isn’t borne solely from statistics, however.
“James, obviously being a captain, it’s a big deal from our leadership standpoint when he’s out there, be it on the field or on the sideline, but active,” ISU offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said. “He brings a spark to us. That’s going to be a big key: getting him back.”
Until then — and maybe after — Nealy will be called upon more.
“He’s a quick-twitch guy,” Johnson said. “He’s fast. He has a motor.”
Johnson had an 11-yard run last week, but hasn’t yet uncorked as many game-changing plays as expected.
“You always try to place a big burden on yourself because you want to make those plays,” said Johnson, who came back from a career-threatening neck injury sustained early last season. “You want to be that guy to go out and make a difference. But at the same time, you have to focus on the things you can control.”
For Nealy, that finally includes his eyesight.
He’s been wearing shades for so long, the jokes have grown stale.
He rolls with them.
But the pink eye’s no laughing matter.
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Nealy said. “I’m just ready to go out this weekend and have a big game so we can win.”