Bowl practices afford young players the opportunity to get a heavy dose of the workload while starters and seniors recuperate from the grind of a season.
One of the players who has stood out to Iowa State coach Matt Campbell isn’t necessarily a new face, but he’s benefiting just like any of the other young guys in the lead up to the Liberty Bowl against No. 19 Memphis on Dec. 30.
Running back Kene Nwangwu is back on the field after suffering an Achilles injury last offseason and is looking like his old self. He’ll be a redshirt sophomore in 2018 after sitting this year out.
“It was great to have him back,” Campbell said. “We missed him, and he’s 100 percent. He had a run (Sunday) and you almost had to double take of who that was. There’s been a lot of those guys, but boy, Kene it’s been great to have back and full go and playing football again.”
The 6-foot-1 and 202-pound Nwangwu signed with ISU in 2016 and immediately carved out his niche during Campbell’s first season. Nwangwu was a Pro Football Focus First-Team Freshman All-American last season as a kick returner, averaging 26.4 yards per return — second in the Big 12 and 15th nationally.
Nwangwu’s 97-yard kickoff return in the 2016 finale against West Virginia was the third-longest return in ISU history and showed the scope of his speed and solid decision making. ISU has had a number of kick returners this season — including Mike Warren, Landen Akers and Trever Ryen — and Nwangwu will be a big piece to plug back into special teams in 2018.
“It would have been nice (to have him this year),” senior quarterback Kyle Kempt said, “but our running backs have played phenomenal this year so he’s just going to be another piece going forward for the team.”
The Cyclones will have balance in their running backs in 2018 with Warren, a senior, juniors David Montgomery and Sheldon Croney, Nwangwu and Johnnie Lang, who is petitioning for a medical redshirt, rounding out the room. ISU is creating depth and balance on the other side of the field, too.
Senior linebacker Joel Lanning led the team in tackles (110) and sacks (5.0) with an interception and fumble recovery. Redshirt freshman Tymar Sutton served as the backup to Lanning and is in line to compete for a starting spot next year, but there could be a couple other names to watch.
“There’s a lot of guys (that stand out),” Lanning said. “We’re going to be a good team next year. There’s just a lot of guys that need those extra reps.
“Defensively I’m watching the linebackers and things like that. O’Rien Vance looks pretty good, Jake Hummel, those guys just needed an offseason really. Obviously Hummel has helped us on special teams and is doing a great job.
“There’s the (freshman) Rory Walling’s just playing as hard as they can. (Freshman defensive back) Keontae (Jones), it’s fun to watch those guys go at it and compete.”
ISU uses these bowl practices, which run for a week and a half to two weeks without fully integrating the seniors, to continue building good habits on the field that pay dividends next fall. The seniors, who have been at practices and watched from the sidelines at times, have seen the groundwork being laid for consistent postseason berths.
“If I’m going to be out there, I like to make the most out of it,” senior wide receiver Allen Lazard said. “If I am doing something, I’m working, but if not I’m always trying to teach the young guys and help them out to be the best.”