It was 2 a.m. and Louis Ayeni, the Iowa State running backs coach, had been home for about two hours after a late-night return from Oklahoma State, where the Cyclones had squandered a 17-point second-half lead and suffered a gut-wrenching Big 12 loss.
The coach’s phone rang, never a good thing in the middle of the night.
After the Bears traded up 14 spots in the third round of the NFL draft Friday night to select Montgomery at No. 73, general manager Ryan Pace said there were numerous stories coming out of the Ames campus detailing Montgomery’s work ethic. Ayeni, now the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator at Northwestern, is the best man to tell those stories about a player he considers a son.
Montgomery FaceTimed Ayeni immediately after he got off the phone Friday night. They spent a half-hour on the phone after lunch Saturday. Ayeni believes the Bears nailed it by adding Montgomery to the defending NFC North champion’s improving offense. He has no doubt Montgomery, in time, will emerge as a leader at Halas Hall.
“We’re doing a recruiting function after David’s freshman year and we got done at like 10:30, 11 o’clock at night and we were going back to the facility to get our cars and we noticed the lights were on in the indoor facility,” Ayeni recalled. “I walked over there with coach (Matt) Campbell to see what was going on in there. The lights are on and music is blaring.
“What’s going on? It’s David in there by himself and he’s going through running back drills by himself. He’s in there just perfecting his craft. The crazy thing is you go back at night a couple weeks later and it’s David and all the running backs. A few weeks after that it’s David and all the skill guys on offense. And then you get to the summer and it’s offense and the defense. He captured that whole team with his work ethic and character and they followed him.”
It was Montgomery, a quarterback at Mt. Healthy High School in Cincinnati, that led the revival of the Cyclones program, from a 3-9 season his freshman season to an 8-5 record and a victory in the Liberty Bowl the next year.
How things shake out in the Bears backfield with free-agent signing Mike Davis will be determined on the practice field and through the preseason, but Montgomery is accustomed to competition. When he arrived at Iowa State, Mike Warren was coming off winning Big 12 freshman of the year honors after he rushed for 1,339 yards in 2015, one of the best seasons in Iowa State history and one of the best for a freshman in the history of the conference. By the middle of Montgomery’s freshman season, he overtook Warren.
“We envision a scenario where they’re all contributing in different areas,” Pace said. “We feel good about that room now. Really good about that room. They all bring a little bit of different things to the table. Matt (Nagy) and I were just talking about it — the different things we can do with all the backs in that room.”
Scouts have compared Montgomery to Browns running back Kareem Hunt, who won the rushing title as a rookie with the Chiefs in 2017. Ayeni is the man who recruited both backs to college, bringing Hunt to Toledo and then landing Montgomery at Iowa State. He’s careful in drawing comparisons between them as players and chuckles when describing how the Cyclones got Montgomery. Ayeni was already in Ames when Campbell was hired and was retained because he had worked with the staff previously at Toledo. Iowa State did not recruit the state of Ohio before Campbell arrived but began immediately because the coaches had ties to the area.
“Our receivers coach, Bryan Gasser, showed me his video, and I was like, ‘Where is this kid going? Ohio State?’ ” Ayeni said.
But Montgomery had no offers at the time.
“His film was really good,” Ayeni said. “Now David was playing quarterback in high school. He was a dual-threat quarterback and when you watched him run the ball, I thought it was something special. He was 220 pounds, he had those thick legs, he looked like a running back. He just had the traits and qualities you would want in a guy, and we were fortunate enough to have enough time to recruit him and get him.”
Once Montgomery got on the field at Iowa State, it was clear he was the program’s best offensive player.
“The similarities between David and Kareem are their contact balance,” Ayeni said. “They can make people miss and break tackles. It’s ridiculous. In 2017, Kareem was a rookie with the Chiefs, David led college football in forced missed tackles and Kareem led the NFL in forced missed tackles.
“They both can catch the ball out of the backfield, short and down the field. They both are willing pass blockers and can protect the quarterback and they both run with a chip on their shoulders. Those guys both compete and don’t want ever want to go down. You know when you watch a running back and it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ It can be a business decision to tackle the guy. You have to gang-tackle them. Both have that desire to never let one guy bring them down.
“I know Kareem was a third-round pick and he kind of came out of nowhere when he burst on the scene. I am just telling you Kareem looked the same way in high school that he looked in the NFL on Sundays and the same he was at Toledo. Whereas Dave, his make-you-miss ability was the same in high school as it was in college, and I’m looking forward to it staying the same in the pros because it’s special what he’s got.”
Montgomery has more natural hands as a receiver than Hunt and he is more refined as a route runner, according to Ayeni. They are areas of his game that can continue to be developed because he has been a running back for only three seasons.
“The sky is the limit for the kid,” Ayeni said. “I told him he is living in the basement.”
Ayeni is confident, too, that if Montgomery calls again in the middle of the night, it won’t be because he’s in trouble.