Rango spring practice

ISU running back Malakai Rango (35) and safety Manase Time (8) go through a drill at a spring practice in Holt Arena.

If there was an award for Most Surprising Player in Idaho State’s 2019 season, Malakai Rango would have won, hands-down.

The freshman running back was under-recruited coming out of high school. In fact, he was preparing to go to junior college until ISU running backs coach David Fiefia called him late in his senior year with an offer.

“Right when he said he was going to offer me, I said yes,” Rango said.

The fall of that same year, Rango was one of a mess of young running backs competing to back up and split carries with returning starter Ty Flanagan in ISU’s offense, which often features two rotating running backs.

At the time, redshirt freshman Soujah Gasu was thought to have a leg up in that race after appearing in four games the year before. All fall, the talk from the coaches was about excited they were to see what Gasu could do. If Rango’s name was mentioned at all, it was as a throwaway, a player to watch for the future or someone who might contribute on special teams.

But the demands and pressure of the real season have a way of junking fall camp expectations.

After impressing as a punt and kick returner early in the season, Rango increasingly picked up carries as Flanagan and Gasu both struggled with injuries.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound back scored his first college touchdown on a reception against North Dakota. As ISU faded down the stretch, Rango was one of the few bright spots, with double-digit carries against Southern Utah, Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington and BYU before he missed the season finale against Weber State with the flu.

He went over 100 total yards in three of those four games, with the highlight a 24-carry, 142-yard, one-touchdown game against BYU in Provo.

“It was a pleasant surprise,” Fiefia said. “We always knew he could do some things, just didn’t know when he’d get called on. ... Sometimes you just really don’t know until they get the opportunity. We do our best to prep guys, regardless of what age. Usually the only time you get to know how good they are or if they’re prepared is throwing them in the fire, and you get to see that way.”

In 2021, Rango’s challenge will be building on that sudden success. His accomplishments as a freshman put him ahead of a lot of players, but they’ll catch up quickly if there’s no progress in Year 2.

As the newly-anointed leader of a very young running back room for ISU, a lot of that progress that Rango is hoping for will come off the field, reflecting his changing circumstances.

“Not really having a voice last year, this year, the change for me is everybody looking up to you, because you’re technically the guy right now,” Rango said. “It holds me more accountable in the things that I do. The coaches do hold me accountable and I’m slowly trying to hold myself more accountable.”

On the field, a yards-per-carry average of 5.3, which he put up last year, would be just fine again. Coaches are planning to keep Rango, who almost housed a 74-yard kick return against North Dakota last year, in his return role on special teams, which will help showcase his speed and moves.

“I’ve put a lot on his plate to carry the load and then also play with special teams,” Fiefia said. “Those expectations haven’t changed just because he’s an underclassman.”

With the starting running back getting return duties too, ISU will need plenty of depth in the backfield, where the Bengals are hoping that another young player makes a Rango-like jump.

Redshirt freshman Raiden Hunter, a 5-foot-10, 190-pounder from San Diego, is likely to get the bulk of the carries behind Rango.

Hunter played in four games a year ago, keeping his redshirt and running for 72 yards on 17 carries.

“He’s smart, he’s savvy and he’s stout in pass protection,” Fiefia said. “He doesn’t do very many things wrong. He’s really strong at understanding where he fits in on offense, whether that’s running the ball, receiving, in pass protection. He was recruited out of high school with high academics.”

Gasu is still around and in the mix for carries as well. ISU’s two other running backs are freshmen, returning missionary Tu’u Afu from Sandy, Utah, and converted linebacker R.J. Owens from Corona, California.

It’s a thin group, which Fiefia acknowledged. None of the running backs have even 100 carries in their college careers. But as Rango learned last year, that chaos can bring opportunity.

“I put a lot of pressure on them during practice, so when it comes to the game, it slows down a little for them, they’re able to slow down and navigate and be successful on game day,” Fiefia said. “I’m kind of excited to see them go. I think they know, especially Malakai and Raiden, that’s it’s their time, and they’re taking the torch and running with it. Now it’s just a matter of strapping it up on game day and proving their worth.”