AMES, Iowa — Trever Ryen was sitting in a dorm room at Northern Iowa watching Iowa State playing Texas when he got the itch to play football again.
Ryen had given up the game for a track scholarship with the Panthers. But when Ryen saw the Cyclones battle the Longhorns under the lights on national television, he realized he was letting his dream of playing at Iowa State pass him by.
“In my head I was like, ‘Man. It’d be so sweet playing at Jack Trice (Stadium) at night,'” Ryen said. “After watching that game I was like, ‘You know what? Screw it. I’m going to go try to live the dream.'”
The Cyclones (1-4, 0-2 Big 12) are thrilled he did. Ryen, a junior wide receiver, enters this weekend’s game at Oklahoma State (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) as the nation’s leader in punt return average.
He is averaging 22.3 yards on seven returns. Four of them have gone at least 25 yards, with a long of 55.
Not bad for a kid who received hardly any attention from Division I schools in high school.
Ryen grew up in tiny Ida Grove, Iowa, as a track star, winning the 100 and 200 meter races at the state meet as a senior. Despite also scoring 19 touchdowns that year, Ryen’s only football offers were from FCS and Division II schools. Like many kids looking for a way to help pay for college, Ryen accepted a track scholarship. But Ryen left Northern Iowa after just one season to pursue a football career at Iowa State — despite the fact that there was no promise he’d ever see the field.
Iowa State was happy to take a chance on Ryen as a walk-on, redshirting him in 2014.
The following season, Ryen flashed his speed with an eye-opening performance in the spring game. Ryen was arguably the best player on the field that day.
“He’s had that (walk-on) mindset ever since,” running back Mike Warren said. “He’s going to come to work every day and bring his best to the table.”
By the fall of 2015, Ryen had so impressed the coaching staff that they gave him a scholarship after just two games.
Ryen didn’t put up monster numbers last year, catching 18 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 71 yards. But Ryen was one of just eight players nationally who scored on a run, a pass and a punt return.
This season, new coach Matt Campbell and the Cyclones have expanded Ryen’s role. He has helped spark a team that has scored 86 points in its last two games.
Ryen was a force against Baylor last week, catching five passes for a team-high 75 yards as Iowa State nearly pulled off the upset.
“He works really hard. He wants to get better. I don’t know if he has plans to play at the next level or not, but he works like he wants to,” quarterback Joel Lanning said.
The work ethic and a fearlessness on the field — similar to what Ryen showed in chasing his Division I dream — have made him one of the nation’s top return men.
“You can’t be scared when you’re back there,” Ryen said. “I have no fear of catching a punt. I always think of the outcome like, ‘If I can a big return here, it can change the game.'”