If your favorite NFL team is looking for a running back that has the long speed to threaten to reach the end zone every time he touches the ball, Kene Nwangwu, out of Iowa State, should be on its radar.
Nwangwu is an exciting prospect with great contact balance and electric ability as a kick returner. He spoke exclusively with The Draft Network about his unique journey at Iowa State, why he hopes to continue playing special teams at the next level, and why an NFL team should take a chance on him in this year’s draft.
JM: You’ve taken an interesting path to get where you are today. How do you reflect on your time at Iowa State?
KN: I’ll say this, it was an incredible journey. The state of the program when I came in compared to what it’s like today, we’ve made such tremendous progress. When I first came in back in 2016, we were fresh off of a losing season. I came in that freshman year and we had another losing season.
To see where we’re headed now, the trajectory we’ve been on is truly amazing. [Head] coach Matt Campbell and his staff are building something truly special right now. Every player, every person involved with that program is truly a great person.
JM: There’s no denying that the program has come a long way over the past couple of years. Campbell is one of the best in the business. What’s your favorite part of playing the running back position?
KN: I love how instinctive we’re allowed to be. It’s almost like a free-flowing position. Don’t get me wrong, we have to follow our keys and reads just like any other player but when you have the ball in your hands, you can be as creative as you’d like. You can set up blocks and be patient. You can display a great amount of burst. It’s almost like you have the full range to do whatever the heart desires. There are different ways for us to be productive.
JM: That’s a great way to look at it. You had a terrific Pro Day. You turned a lot of heads with a 40-yard dash time of 4.29 seconds. Tell us a little about that and what some of your other results were.
KN: All of those numbers and things that came out of my Pro Day, they’re great but those are things I already knew I could do. Those are the numbers I was putting up at Boost Performance over in Nashville with Jordan Luallen. I wasn’t surprised by any of that.
My biggest thing was to showcase to NFL scouts that I can catch the ball and line up at the wide receiver position. I can develop those traits. During the season and all throughout my collegiate career, I didn’t get many opportunities to catch the ball coming out of the backfield.
The testing numbers were great, I knew they would get a lot of attention on social media, but I was more focused on proving that I could be a versatile athlete while playing the running back position.
JM: That’s an excellent point. I’m not surprised to hear you say that you wanted to focus on catching passes during your Pro Day. You didn’t catch a lot of balls at Iowa State and honestly, I don’t understand why you weren’t used more in that area of the game. Everything about your skill-set screams that you’re a productive pass catcher as well. Have NFL teams asked about that?
KN: I’m telling teams that with the few opportunities I received to prove that I could catch the ball, that’s exactly what I did. I made the most of my opportunities. I’ve done it at all-star games throughout this process. I did it at my Pro Day. I can catch the ball. I’ve been working on it during the offseason. I plan to continue working on it. I’ve been working on it since January.
If that’s an area of my game that people see as a question mark, I take it upon myself to work on every aspect of being a running back, especially the things that make me a special prospect. That’s one area that I’m continuing to work on.
JM: I couldn’t ask you for a better explanation than that. When I turn the tape on, I see an elusive player with game-breaking ability in the open field. How did you develop those areas of your game?
KN: I was so raw when I first arrived at Iowa State. I was really just a track athlete that was playing football. My game was all about straight-line speed at that point in time. My freshman year, I’ll never forget this. My running back coach Louis Ayeni, he made sure that he was developing every single running back in the position room. We had David Montgomery, Mike Warren, Sheldon Croney Jr., and myself at the time.
He wanted to make sure that we were versatile running backs. He wanted every one of us to be able to catch the ball. We had to be able to pass protect as well. He familiarized us with inside zone, outside zone, gap schemes, power, and so on. He made sure to expose us to everything. We did drill work. We studied. We developed good habits. We always knew what we were doing during both practices and games. The drills always translated to the game.
I definitely credit that kind of stuff to coach Ayeni. He helped me develop into a versatile running back.
JM: That’s extremely high praise for what sounds like a terrific football coach. Your long speed is breathtaking. It’s not surprising. You won a state championship for track and field in high school. You have several family members that have also competed in track. Is that just a natural ability that runs in the family?
KN: Yeah, that’s just God-given ability right there (laughs). I didn’t train to be fast. I just happen to be fast. I would definitely say this though, going to a training facility with my coach, Jordan Luallen, at Boost Performance definitely helped me fine-tune some of these details. When I started training with him, I was running a 4.40 laser time. We fine-tuned my start and my stance. That’s why I ran a high 4.2, low 4.3 at Pro Day. It’s a natural ability of mine. If I could give any credit to what I’ve done, I’ll say that I have a tremendous work ethic. I love to work on my craft.
JM: I can tell that you love the game. You were a terrific special teams player at Iowa State. You averaged an excellent 26.85 yards per return on 92 career kickoff returns while totaling 2,470 kick-return yards; that speaks to the level of your consistency. I imagine you hope to continue returning kicks at the next level.
KN: Oh, for sure I do (laughs). The way I see kick returns, it’s like a 4-x-1 race and you’re the anchor, [the final position in a 100-meter relay race]. The first thing that happens is the ball gets kicked off. You’re looking at all the defenders and everybody lined up in front of you. You’re trying to sit at home. You’re the one person with the ball and you literally have 10 people blocking for you. My thing is, those are the guys that make me look good. I end up getting the credit, but it should really go to them. It’s all about the blocking. I might make one person miss. That’s all it takes to field a good return.
JM: That’s an excellent point. You’ve touched on the running backs that you played alongside throughout your time at Iowa State. Montgomery is obviously a special one. Breece Hall had 1,572 rushing yards this past season. What did you learn from playing with those guys?
KN: I learned a ton about the value of hard work. You need to stay at Iowa State and work on your craft. There are so many different types of running backs. If I thought that I could do exactly what David Montgomery does or exactly what Breece Hall does or anybody really, that would be incredibly silly of me.
I can’t be exactly like another person. That’s not how you wanna go about it. You wanna hone in on your craft. You need to find what makes you a special, unique running back and fine-tune those things. While doing that, you can make sure you’re versatile enough to do everything and fit into any offensive scheme at the next level. While working next to those guys, I learned how to hone in on my craft. I learned how to become the best possible version of myself that I can be.
JM: That’s a terrific way to look at it. You’re such a unique player. Which running backs did you watch and admire growing up? Do you model your game after anybody?
KN: I’ve been a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan. Whenever I started watching football, I remember always watching DeMarco Murray. Going through this draft process, and my agent agrees, a lot of people think Raheem Mostert is a good comparison for me. When you look at the production in college, we line up similarly. We’ve seen what he’s done in the NFL despite not getting many opportunities in college. I think our career arcs line up a little bit. That’s a good comparison.
JM: That’s a good one. You’ve spent the last few months meeting with NFL teams via Zoom. What’s that process been like, and who are some of the teams you’ve met with?
KN: It’s been a very informative process. I’ve enjoyed hearing where professional coaches think I fit in at the next level. We’re talking about scheme fits. We’re talking about special teams. The process is going well for me.
I’ve been on Zoom with the Jets, Giants, Browns, Cardinals, Colts, and the Patriots. I’m enjoying the process. I’m learning what they’re teaching me. By the end of our meetings, I’m using the terminology of their scheme and showing them what I learned and retained.
JM: That’s exactly what they’re looking for. There’s a lot of interest in you and it’s easy to see why. Have any teams asked why you weren’t more productive in college? The tape is awesome, you averaged 5.2 yards per carry, but the sample size is tiny.
KN: Nobody has asked me that. Honestly, I think they know the answer to that question. There isn’t a mystery surrounding that. I played behind David Montgomery and Breece Hall. One of those guys finished top 10 in the Heisman [Trophy] voting and the other one finished in the top five for total rushing yards. I don’t think it’s a question. Nobody is asking if I can produce. They know I was stuck behind a couple of players and didn’t get as many opportunities. I haven’t had that question, because I think teams already know the answer.
JM: It’s tough to argue with that. I’ve really appreciated your time today. In closing, why should an NFL team use one of its draft picks on Kene Nwangwu?
KN: Kene Nwangwu is a team-first player. Other than my attributes and the things and numbers I put on display at my Pro Day, you’ve seen the tape. Besides those things, I’m also willing to play whichever position and role you need me to play. I’m ready to work on special teams. I’m ready to learn any scheme. I’m a hard worker. That’s how I developed my game. That’s how I’ve always been. My parents raised me that way. That’s why I’m worth a draft pick.