AMES — Lou Ayeni fidgeted in his chair.
Within days of arriving in Ames as Iowa State’s new running backs coach in January of 2014, one recruit’s name — Mike Warren — echoed in his mind.
But Ayeni didn’t pipe up immediately about the talented, Lawton, Okla., product-turned-Cyclones star.
“Being the new guy, I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, so I was like, ‘I hope these guys know what they’re talking about, because I feel have a pretty good idea of what I want (at) tailback,’” Ayeni recalled. “So, you sit there and you just know you’ve got something waiting there that could be really good, and really special for our program, but if they try to tell you, ‘These guys are better,’ you try to see and listen and learn why they think that. So I was trying to figure everybody else out while in the back of my head it’s, ‘We’ve got to get this kid.’”
The Cyclones already had two running backs committed to it’s next class. Ayeni didn’t wish to rock the boat.
“When coach Lou got hired here, I was like, ‘Oh, man, I don’t know what I’m going to do now,” said Warren, who planned to play for Toledo, Ayeni’s former team.
Then Tommy Mister decommitted and Ayeni saw his opening. He called up Warren. The plot — like Warren has this offseason — thickened.
“‘We’re about to go into this meeting and I’m going to bring your name up,’” Warren remembers Ayeni saying. “I was like, ‘OK.’ So it’s like, an hour, two hours pass by and I’m like, ‘OK, I guess they didn’t find it interesting or whatever.’ And then I get a call — as soon as I started thinking about that. They offered me right then and there. I talked to (then-head) coach (Paul) Rhoads. I talked to Lou. Those guys were pretty excited.”
For good reason.
Warren’s redshirt freshman season brought forth innumerable accolades.
A consensus freshman All-American? Check. The top-producing freshman rusher (1,339 yards)? Of course.
All because another guy chose to go elsewhere. And all because Ayeni forcefully and successfully made a case for Warren, who planned to play for Matt Campbell — and, ironically enough, will get his chance to do that this season.
“Luckily for us, Michael was interested,” Ayeni said of the roundabout recruiting that landed Warren. “He wanted to come up — enjoyed the place, he loves Ames — and now he’s had a great (redshirt) freshman year and he’s going to have a great career when it’s all said and done.”
Warren’s acumen for finding a hole and darting through it is well-documented.
After little action in ISU’s first two games last season, he slashed through Toledo’s defense for 126 yards on 21 carries.
He rushed for 420 yards in the next two games — and averaged 131.7 yards on the ground over the final nine games of 2015.
The next step: better blocking and ball security.
Fumbles were an issue last season, so Ayeni came up with a knockout plan to work on preventing them in camp: Using boxing gloves to literally punch at the football.
“I’ve got a good 1-2 coming at you,” Ayeni joked.
The importance of the drill is dead serious, though.
“I think it’s all fun, but at the same time ball security’s at a premium right now,” said Warren, who rushed for a career-high 245 yards in a loss to Texas Tech last season. “If you take care of the ball you’ll most likely win the game and they’ve put a really big emphasis on that since we’ve started camp.”
Why boxing, though? Well, why not?
“As a young coach, you’re always looking for ways to get your message across and with Mike, a big thing for him (is) we’ve got to protect the football,” Ayeni said. “I kept telling them, ‘I’m going to punch that ball, I’m going to punch that ball out,’ and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to get some boxing gloves and actually try to punch the ball out.’ It’s been a really good drill for us. Coach (Bryan) Gasser’s using it with the receivers now. … It’s more of a point of emphasis. There’s kind of some symbolism there, too. Guys like it. It just makes it more fun for them, too — and I take my hacks at ‘em.”
Guys are taking hacks at Warren in other ways, as well.
True freshman David Montgomery and Kene Nwangwu have joined backup backs Mitchell Harger and Sheldon Croney as possible complements to Warren in 2016.
Ayeni called Montgomery “quick as a hiccup,” and described Nwangwu as “the fastest guy on the field every time he steps on it.”
Warren appreciates the fast company.
“They got here this summer,” he said. “New staff. New experience for them. I guided them all the way through it. Those guys were really anxious about football. They couldn’t wait to get on the field and practice. And I’m telling them it’s all a process. You’ve got to, you know, lift weights, (go to) meetings and all that. They’re good so far.”
Warren’s working to cement greatness. A guy who seemed destined for Toledo until fate took a hand. A guy who makes the most of every touch — even if he’ll be running behind an injury-depleted offensive line.
“With the carries given, Mike Warren is one of the best backs in the country,” Ayeni said. “So whether it’s 1,000 (yards), 1,500, 2,000… he’s going to maximize his opportunities when he gets it.”