AMES, Iowa — Two years ago, Iowa State’s Mike Warren established himself as one of the nation’s most promising young running backs.
Late last season, David Montgomery did the same thing.
The Cyclones are hoping the pair will give them a successful running game after a 3-9 record last season.
Iowa State enters 2017 with two of the Big 12’s more intriguing backs in Warren, who ran for over 1,300 yards in 2015, and Montgomery, who rushed for over 140 yards in two of his final three games last year.
Montgomery, a sophomore, will likely open the season as the starter. But Warren, a redshirt junior should see plenty of playing time — and second-year coach Matt Campbell said the competition for playing time was so friendly that the two became close in the offseason.
“I’ll be honest with you. Early on I’m like ‘Is this really real, or is this phony?’ But as I saw and watched them feeding off of each other…those two have made each other better,” Campbell said Thursday during the team’s annual media day.
Campbell opened his first season at Iowa State believing Warren was a star in the making.
Though Warren had an injury-riddled and disappointing season a year ago, Iowa State remains confident that he can be a difference maker.
Warren was overlooked as a recruit because he didn’t peak until his senior year, rushing for 2,512 yards on 9.3 yards a carry. Warren committed to Campbell at Toledo, later switching to Iowa State for an opportunity to play at a Power Five school.
After a redshirt season, Warren reunited with Campbell and averaged a school record 5.9 yards per carry while gaining the third-most yards by a freshman in league history.
But Warren struggled to play through a high-ankle sprain last season and was limited to just 559 yards. Campbell also publicly challenged Warren for his effort at times last season, but he said Warren re-dedicated himself in the offseason and was one of team’s most impressive workers.
“There wasn’t any though at all (about transferring),” Warren said. “I think it’s paid off so far.”
If there was a bright side to Warren’s struggles in 2016, it was that they gave Montgomery a shot much earlier than expected.
Montgomery, a high school quarterback, blossomed last November. He finished with 563 yards — but 341 of those came in Iowa State’s final three games.
Montgomery had 169 yards in a win over Kansas that snapped a five-game losing streak and 141 more in a season-ending loss to West Virginia.
Montgomery also caught 13 passes in 2016, a number that could expand greatly as the coaching staff seeks ways to get Montgomery and Warren on the field together.
“Mike is a great guy. He helped me a lot when I got here, and my biggest thing was just to help him. If he can help me, I know I can help him,” Montgomery said. “He pushes me. I push him.”
Warren and Montgomery’s success in 2017 will hinge partly on the development of a rebuilt offensive line. But both have proven they can play in the Big 12, and keeping Warren and Montgomery healthy and fresh could help Iowa State reach its first bowl game in five years
The Cyclones host Northern Iowa of the FCS on Sept. 2.
“I wouldn’t really see it as competition. I would see it as like tough love almost,” Warren said. “It’s more like tough love from our peers, and we need that to grow.”
More college football at www.collegefootball.ap.org