The hidden gem in this year's draft? Iowa State RB Kene Nwangwu

Nobody at his position is faster. Nobody's smarter, either. You didn't see much of this running back in college but that'll change at the next level.

He flicks a finger against his palm. That’s all the pain he felt.

A quick, innocent flick.

When Kene Nwangwu leapt over a hurdle in 2017 winter training — a competition drill on Iowa State’s football team — he thought he merely clipped it and nicked the back of his heel, so he kept on sprinting. Upon finishing, though, something still felt a little funny. Nwangwu reached down, started rubbing the back of his foot and… it felt far softer than it should’ve. Like mush.

And it hit him: There was nothing there. He had torn his Achilles’ tendon.

Just like that, the running back lost his superpower: speed. He wasn’t able to do anything football-related for nine months, relegated to inching around campus on a scooter through absolutely brutal Ames blizzards.

“It was wild,” Nwangwu says. “I wouldn’t change it because it made me a better person.”

That’s because he’d regain that superpower. And then some. Kene Nwangwu — pronounced “kun-NAY new-WAN-goo” — is the undisputed fastest running back in this year’s NFL draft. At his pro day, scouts clocked the 6-foot, 212-pounder as low as 4.28 in the 40-yard dash. No, he was never featured at Iowa State. When that tendon recoiled up his leg like blinds up the window, David Montgomery got his opportunity to shine and dominated the Big 12. Then, Breece Hall burst onto the scene. Nwangwu only carried the ball 10 times in a game three times.

And yet whenever he did get his shot, he was dynamite.

You could see the signs on special teams where Nwangwu finished as Iowa State’s all-time leading kick returner with 26.8 yards per runback and more signs through his 143 career carries for 774 yards. It’s one thing to watch this speed on a faraway screen and quite another to be in the presence of the man himself.

“When you’re on the field with him and he runs by you,” Iowa State running backs coach Nathan Scheelhaase says, “you feel like it’s a missile going by you. There’s just a ton of power. He can produce power in a hurry. You can feel it when you’re on the field with him.”

So, let’s go again and declare it: Kene Nwangwu is the sleeper of the draft, the hidden gem bound to make the crucial play in the crucial moment. That’s what he did repeatedly at Iowa State and, with a creative coach, he’ll do it again in the pros. Because it’s also important to remember who exactly makes those plays on the game’s grandest stage — players nobody gave a damn about on draft weekend.

Rip through the last seven Super Bowls.

  • 2020. One player chasing Patrick Mahomes all over the field, Shaquil Barrett, was undrafted in 2014. Miraculously, 21 defensive ends were taken ahead of the guy who’d stop the unstoppable and was justly rewarded $34.5 million guaranteed. Seven of those 21 never recorded a sack. Barrett, of course, has 31.5 the last two seasons alone.

  • 2019. You can absolutely make the case that running back Damien Williams should’ve been the Super Bowl MVP in torching San Francisco. He went undrafted in that same ‘14 draft.

  • 2018. The player who won MVP this game was a quarterback at Kent State drafted 232nd overall. And be careful. The current debate over whether or not Julian Edelman is a Hall-of-Famer has been a bloodbath.

  • 2017. Undrafted Corey Clement practically fell from the football heavens, right into Minneapolis, to catch four balls for 100 yards with a touchdown for the Eagles. On the other sideline, fellow undrafteds Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola combined for 280 yards.

  • 2016. With a Super Bowl-record 20 points, former 130th overall pick James White helped dig the Patriots out of a surreal 28-3 hole. He caught 14 passes for 110 yards, too.

  • 2015: Undrafted, tree trunk-built C.J. Anderson rammed through the teeth of Carolina’s stingy defense to pace Denver.

  • 2014: One moment, Jermaine Kearse hauled in what we all thought was one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history. The ball ricocheted off every one of his body parts. The next, Malcolm Butler goes down in history with his interception at the goal line. Both players, you guessed it, were undrafted.

Players that nobody talked about, period, on their draft days won teams championships. Figuring out who those players will be is the fun. There’s something special inside of the players mentioned above, something the league missed out of college.

And the more you get to know Kene Nwangwu, the more he sure seems like a player who’ll get his own moment.   

“For me,” he says, “I say my strengths are speed and explosion. Character. I’m unselfish. The whole time I was a backup, I never took it as, ‘This is a knock on me or a knock on my character.’ I took it as: ‘What job do I have? Kick returner? I’m trying to be the best kick returner ever.’ So if it’s the next level and I’m behind a Saquon, a Kareem Hunt, Nick Chubb, those guys, OK, what’s my job? Gunner? I’ll be the best gunner ever. That’s how I took it. And that’s how I took it when it comes to education. Being an athlete. Being a teammate.

“That’s how my parents raised me. Whatever you’re doing as an Nwangwu, be the best to ever do it.”  

So, this is where he starts. With his family. Mom and Dad moved to North Texas from Nigeria in their mid-20s to give their kids the best life possible.

His Dad, Jerome, earned degrees in business and nursing. His Mom, Ogonna, became an operating-room nurse. Here, in this household, education was No. 1. Always. Kene didn’t even play football until his mother allowed it in seventh grade. Even as he blossomed into a legit D-I recruit, he says his parents viewed sports as something for kids who didn’t care that much about their schoolwork. And even though they were eventually cool with Kene not pursuing a job in the medical field as they had hoped — he loved cars, so he got into mechanical engineering — Mom especially was no fan of Kene playing such a violent sport.

Ogonna would tell her son all the time he doesn’t “need” football, that he could put all of his energy into engineering.

Kene kept telling her how much he loved it, Mom came around and, now, he says Mom knows so much about the game that she could be a ref.

Not that Nwangwu shoved engineering to the side. If he wasn’t pursuing an NFL career, he’d be on the fast track to building Teslas or BMWs because he enjoys how engineering taps into a different part of his brain. It wasn’t easy to find a school that’d scratch this itch. As he visited Iowa, Indiana, Kansas and Northwestern, Nwangwu couldn’t find any players in engineering. In Ames, he did. He loved the fact that one running back was all about it and today that player, Mitchell Harger, is an aerospace engineer at NASA.

The fit was perfect.

Off the field, Nwangwu earned a 3.8 GPA and Big 12 Scholar Athlete of the Year honors in 2020. If he wasn’t at practice or training, there’s a good chance Nwangwu was seeing a tutor. Most of us would find the difficulty of these classes cruel. His last semester at Iowa State, Nwangwu recalls studying “fluid dynamics” and “heat transfer” — how, for example, heat travels through windows.

On the field, head coach Matt Campbell once told Nwangwu that he was exactly the kind of person he needed to build something special. Nwangwu played as a freshman in ’16 and, then, tore that Achilles. Speed is what always defined him and, suddenly, his speed was gone. He’d need to a full calendar year to get it back.

With every reason to be demoralized through an excruciating rehab, Nwangwu insists he embraced it all.  

He discovered a new gratitude for any snap he’d ever get.

“Having something like that taken away from you — and it’s not your choice — it makes you appreciate things more,” Nwangwu says. “I remember coming into treatments like, ‘Man, I get to walk today. I get to step out of the boot and take a couple steps.’ Or, ‘I get to be in the water tub, actually running.’ So you get to see this day-by-day progress and it gives you a great appreciation for the big picture: ‘Hey, I get to play football. And whenever I’m healthy, I’m happy that I’m healthy.’”

The first time Nwangwu was cleared, he treated warmups like a New Year’s Six bowl game. He high-kneed with such violent enthusiasm that fellow running back Sheldon Croney told him to relax.

One other “secret blessing” was that he got stronger. A lot stronger. Nwangwu couldn’t run for months so he lived in the weight room. The kid who could bench press 225 pounds as a freshman only once became a man. Before he knew it, Nwangwu hit double-digits. Into his predraft training, he hit 15 reps. Then, 17. And with adrenaline pumping in front of all of those NFL scouts, Nwangwu cranked out 22 reps at 225 pounds a couple weeks ago. He knows that wouldn’t have been possible without his medical redshirt year.

And his speed, miraculously, never suffered.

Scheelhaase was hired when Nwangwu returned and saw zero lingering effects. In fact, he remembers Montgomery insisting that Nwangwu was faster. There was no denying this work ethic. Coaches would tell each other that if everyone attacked the game like Nwangwu, they’d win a ton of games. And by 2020, the team’s new strength and conditioning coach Dave Andrews — who’d been around plenty of studs from Cincinnati to Illinois to Notre Dame to Pittsburgh — was stunned.

Andrews told Scheelhaase this was the “most powerful” and “most explosive” player he ever coached.

Montgomery and Hall were entrenched as the workhorses but Nwangwu didn’t gripe for more carries. Scheelhaase says he’d instead break the kick-return game down to a science by dissecting how all 11 players worked in harmony to create the perfect seam at the perfect time. That engineering brain came in handy. And whenever he did get the ball via return or rushing attempt? That 0-to-60 “missile”-like speed was breathtaking.

Nwangwu returned 92 kicks in all and cherished one above all else.

On Oct. 3, Oklahoma took a 30-23 lead over Iowa State with eight minutes to go. A sack-fumble-touchdown sequence sucked the life out of the stadium, and why wouldn’t it? This was the same old, same old. Iowa State hadn’t beat OU in Ames since 1960. Yet as a light rain drizzled, Nwangwu knew he had the Sooners right where he wanted. All night, the Cyclones were selling returns to the boundary — so they’d take this one up the middle, a stab right to the abdomen. And with one shoulder-dip, one high-step, one 85-yard return to OU’s 13, Nwangwu completely turned the tide.  

Iowa State made it 30-30 two plays later, got the ball back and won, 37-30.

“I have the ball in my hands so I’m going to make a play,” Nwangwu says. “That’s my mindset. I want to be a playmaker whenever the ball’s in my hands. … For me, I saw it as, ‘Hey, this is a play where I can change the tide of this football game.’ I saw the offense coming on, the defense and it was ‘We’re going to win this game.’ You could feel it. So we ended up winning that game and it felt good to say, ‘I contributed to that win.’”

You can watch the full sequence of events right here. Moments like this are why a stat line doesn’t do Nwangwu justice.

Scheelhaase points to more moments, too.

Spring ball. In an intrasquad scrimmage, Nwangwu took an outside zone handoff and met an unblocked cornerback one on one near his own 10-yard line.

“He stuck his foot in the ground — the corner was outside of him — and he got vertical,” Scheelhaase says. “And, man, all of a sudden he burst by everybody. He was 10 yards in front of everybody chasing him. That corner, in a lot of ways, felt like he had time and distance to be able to make a play and fit back inside. And Kene stuck his outside foot in the ground and it seemed like you blinked your eyes and he was 10 yards in front of everyone.”

The 49-yard TD vs. TCU. Nwangwu high-stepped through another tackler, hit the sideline and was gone. It was his only carry in the game.

The Kansas and West Virginia TD runs. One split-second of patience, on both plays, and Nwangwu split the safeties.

The Baylor return. Nothing was going right. Iowa State couldn’t stop turning the ball over and fell behind, 24-10. Enter, Nwangwu. He took a kickoff back 67 yards, shot a Kobe jumper with the pigskin from his back and Iowa State woke up. Scheelhaase recalls that play injecting life into the entire team, the entire stadium to propel the Cyclones to a 38-31 win.

“For a guy who has battled through adversity,” Scheelhaase adds, “those adverse moments weren’t too big for him. He didn’t think, ‘I can’t do it. I don’t know if I can make the impact.’ He had already dealt with enough.”

Adds Nwangwu: “Whoever wants to take a chance on me, they’re getting someone who’s willing to do anything.”

So… why didn’t Nwangwu get the ball more? Simply, Iowa State didn’t want to detour away from what was working so well. Hall did rush for 1,572 yards and 21 scores as the lead back on a 9-3 team. Before him, Montgomery eclipsed 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. When pressed, Scheelhaase repeats that Nwangwu’s lack of touches had nothing to do with Nwangwu himself. And Nwangwu doesn’t sound too upset about it.

The running back says he never got too frustrated, never thought I deserve this and I deserve that.

Tearing that Achilles made him truly cherish every one of those 12 games in 2020.

“When you have a grateful and thankful attitude,” Nwangwu says, “it’s not like you get frustrated because you’re not doing something. It’s like, ‘Dang. What do I need to do better to get to where I want to be?’”

That’s what he did once the season ended, too. On Day 1 of training, Nwangwu ran a 4.40. And after working diligently on exploding lower out of his stance, he got down to the 4.2’s by his pro day. Three separate teams clocked him at 4.28, 4.28 and 4.29 — absurd considering his size. Practically all prospects who’ve run in the 4.2’s are less than 200 pounds.

Thus, interest has skyrocketed. Some NFL scouts have been telling Nwangwu’s agent that he reminds them of Raheem Mostert. It’s easy to see why, too. At Purdue, Mostert never had 100 carries in a single season despite his blistering speed. He, too, was mostly confined to the return game and didn’t disappoint with 26.0 yards per kick return.

It took a while for the NFL to come to its senses. Mostert was cut six times. But in 2019, he was the star of the NFC Championship Game with 220 yards and four scores. It was no fluke, either. In 2020, Mostert had the two fastest recorded plays in the NFL per Next Gen Stats, at 23.09 MPH on one 80-yard TD and 22.73 MPH on a 76-yard TD.

Speed to this extreme transfers to the field.

Some way. Somehow.

“If that’s my story… obviously I want to get drafted but if I don’t get drafted, it doesn’t matter,” Nwangwu says. “I want to be a playmaker. I want to be a spark for a team.

We all blab on and on about the studs at the top of the draft this time of year.

For good reason, too.

Trevor Lawrence! and Zach Wilson! and Justin Fields! and Trey Lance! and Mac Jones! may all be the faces of the franchises that draft them for a decade-plus. Or busts. We’ll see. What we do know is that a handful of prospects that nobody knows right now — like someone who received only 3.04 carries per game in college — will rise up in a Super Bowl. Hunting all over the country for that Edelman-like, Butler-like, Barrett-like magic within a 21- or 22-year-old is what gets scouts up in the morning.

Scheelhaase can see a team adding this raw speed and finding a way to use it. He says Nwangwu has a “homecoming personality,” too. Teammates gravitate towards him. After that 4.28, more and more scouts have been reaching out to him. Scheelhaase isn’t so sure teams can wait around to draft Nwangwu.

Granted, Mom was most proud of that scholar award. Next to Nwangwu getting his degree, that is what brought the biggest smile to his parents’ faces because that is why they came to America in the first place. (The Nwangwus still have plenty of family in Nigeria — Mom alone has seven sisters and the majority remain there.) As much as he loves football, Nwangwu has given deep thought to what he’ll do with his brain, too. His 25-year-old brother, Emeka, was a track athlete at the University of Texas at Arlington who loves network engineering and is now an investor. They’ve discussed personal finance and, as Nwangwu says, “how to make money grow.”

Kene’s grand idea is to one day go into business with his 17-year-old brother, Odi, who has Asperger syndrome.

He knows the one thing his little bro loves more than anything is cars. So, the plan is to earn as much money as he can in the NFL to help his family start an autobody shop one day that’ll allow Odi to work on cars, allow Odi to do something he loves. His Dad could even use that business degree, he says. Everyone will be able to put their skills to use.

Kene calls Odi his best friend. They talk every day.

Socially, Odi isn’t as advanced as other kids his age but Kene just gets him. Always has.

“Half the time,” Nwangwu says, “he only wants to make people laugh. Or he wants attention. But with him, he has such a hyper focus on the things that he likes and it happens to be cars. So I can see him being a mechanic and whatever he wants to do, I want to be there to support him financially as a big brother. So that’s my passion. For real.”

Maybe he’s drafted. Maybe not.

All Kene Nwangwu really needs is the football in his hands with the game on the line.

With one blastoff, he’ll do the rest.

Share Go Long with Tyler Dunne

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Ihmir Smith-Marsette: ‘I definitely feel like I can take over the NFL’

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