Is There Another Austin Eckler-Style Back Waiting to be Discovered?

In recent years A movie played on arena football league nostalgia directly involving the Iowa Barnstormers. While this hasn’t necessarily put the IFL team more on the map than it was prior to the movie, what it has done is reminded some that there is NFL level talent on this roster.

Watch any game from the Barnstormers over the last season and a half. Two things you’re likely to hear during the broadcast: Kurt Warner’s name, and Antonio Wimbush’s name. That’s because in just 20 career games this man has scored 35 touchdowns for the Barnstormers. About 1.75 touchdowns per game in the closet thing the Indoor Football League offers to a pro-style offense.

Wimbush is an interesting case of a career nearly thwarted by COVID-19. Coming out of college he graduated during the 2020 draft cycle which saw pro days, and private workouts cancelled. Small school guys who didn’t get the invite to the NFL combine were left in the wake of a tidal wave that swept across sports and shut down any football league outside of the NFL.

The ripple effect this caused changed lives both extending some, and ending other careers just based on circumstances alone. The CFL, IFL, NAL, CIF, XFL, and AAF all folded or shut down for the year leaving many players who built their career in these leagues out of jobs. This was also before the ELF, USFL, and several other alternatives existed for players. It also prevented men like Wimbush, who likely would have been a prime target for the CFL at the time, from ever getting that call.

Let’s Take a Closer Look at Wimbush

Coming out of high school depending on what scouting outlet you looked at Antonio was listed anywhere from 5’7 165 pounds to 6’0 185 pounds. That 5 inch and 20 pound difference can mean a world to a running back’s long term success. Mistakes and misinformation like this can hold a player back at times.

Coming out of high school Wimbush, according to ran a 4.60 40 yard dash, bench pressed 280 pounds, and squatted 410 pounds. He also had a personal best of 27.5 inches in the vertical jump. Solid numbers for an incoming freshman only not many schools seemed to be looking into Wimbush, and part of me wonders how much these discrepancies in information caused for the young running back.

During high school Wimbush played all three phases of the game playing running back on offense returning kicks and punts, and playing cornerback on defense for Camden County. He easily could have been recruited to play either way, and if you needed some evidence of this:

Against the 15-consecutive FHSAA title winners Tallahassee Lincoln Trojans, Wimbush gave everyone a taste of his future production in college and the professional world. On the day Wimbush produced 2 tackles for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble, a blocked extra point, a 76 yard kick return, a 47 yard reception, a 45 yard punt return, and 21 yards rushing.

Carson Newman Comes Calling

Carson Newman saw the potential in Wimbush and recruited him to play running back. When he arrived at camp, he was one of 20 running backs on the roster at the time. Setting himself apart, and earning immediate playing time would be tough to say the least. It didn’t take long before Carson Newman realized what they had in Wimbush.

As a true freshman he finished the season with 94 carries for 584 yards 11 touchdowns, adding 2 receptions for 61 yards, and 2 punt returns for 2 yards. This was an average of 6.2 yards per carry. Despite 98 touches he fumbled just one time. In his sophomore season he returned to a larger role, and fell just shy of his first 1000 rushing yard season. With 160 carries for 941 yards, his yards per carry dipped to 5.9 still an impressive number to say the least. This was also his best season as a receiver and a punt returner catching 20 passes for 257 yards, 1 touchdown and adding 18 returns for 156 yards.

His third season with the school he suffered a rather severe injury that caused him to only play in two games. He carried the ball 17 times averaging an insane 8.8 yards per carry totaling 149 yards in just a game and a half suffering the injury and missing the tail end of week two. He was allowed to take a medical redshirt which gave him the ability to return for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. These two years proved to be his best at the collegiate level.

In 2018 in his return from injury he still managed 8 yards per carry on his way to 1,206 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns averaging 109.6 yards per game. As a senior he saw one less carry but dipped in yards produced to 1,123. However he also fumbled just one time and scored 11 times. One less fumble, and 4 more touchdowns than the previous season when he set a career high for rushing yards. More importantly he became the third member of Carson Newman’s 4,000 yard rushing club.

Is This The End?

That’s when Covid stepped in and everything came to a screeching halt as Wimbush came from a school largely ignored by the NFL combine when it comes to sending invites to their players. With no private workouts, or pro-days Wimbush was left contemplating life after football, and that time to ponder quickly stretched into the 2021 season. Suddenly Antonio Wimbush’s legacy looked like it would end with college.

That’s when the HUB Camp invited Wimbush to attend. At this work out he participated in front of scouts from several leagues hoping to reignite his professional career. Reignite his career is exactly what he would do as he caught the eye of Iowa Barnstormers Head Coach Dave Mogensen. Mogensen, has a history of grabbing the best and biggest name players. He has an eye for evaluating talent and knowing when they might fall through the cracks of the outdoor evaluation system. He had shown this in previous stops with the Albany Empire, as well where he helped in the front office.

At first, it looked like he swung and missed with Wimbush when Antonio didn’t immediately call, but ultimately after some time to consider his options he came around. Since signing with Iowa he has paired with quarterback Darius James Peterson to form a dynamic duo in the run game during the 2022 season. Playing in 14 games, Wimbush ended the season second in carries, and yards but first in rushing touchdowns on the Barnstormers behind only DJP.

Wimbush finished the season fourth amongst running backs in rushing yards, and ninth overall in the league. He was sixth in overall attempts as well. Wimbush finished the year fourth on the team in receptions and yards. But tied for third in touchdowns. Other than quarterback DJP, Wimbush was the only skill position player to top 20 touchdowns for Iowa in 2022.

High Expectations for 2023

Heading into the 2023 season with both DJP and Wimbush returning, expectations for the Barnstormers were soaring high. In their first game of the season Wimbush put on a show, with 19 offensive touches for 129 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Unfortunately almost immediately the Barnstormers were forced to test their depth at both quarterback and running back. Both players would suffer potential season ending knee injuries.

One player was forced to see his season ended on injured reserve, while the other was back in just a months time. To expect a slump from Wimbush would be natural, he returned in record time from an injury most backs would have volunteered to shut down their season due to. Antonio said during the Tulsa game his teammates had to talk him out of playing timid, it must have been very early in the game.

By the end of the Tulsa Oilers game Wimbush had 16 carries for 82 rushing yards, 2 receptions for 6 yards both of which resulted in touchdowns and 2 kick returns for 34 yards. A total of 20 touches for 122 yards and 3 touchdowns. Incredibly consistent statistics despite a month of rehab in between. Wimbush has played in just 8 games this season and topped 100 yards total 4 times. As it stands he has 95 carries for 317 yards and 12 touchdowns, with 24 receptions for 241 yards and 6 touchdowns, as well as 5 kick returns for 84 yards.

Collectively he has played in 22 games collecting 246 carries, 946 yards rushing, 31 tds, 50 receptions for 486 yards and 9 touchdowns, 21 kick returns for 333 yards. Meaning he has averaged 14.5 touches for 80 yards and 1.8 touchdowns per game during his short professional career.

Given that he has a background playing cornerback, special teams coverage units aren’t out of the question, he has experience as a kick and punt returner, he has played slot receiver and running back and found success at each role. Why he hasn’t signed with an outdoor team is beyond me.

NFL Comparison

Austin Ekeler was a small school guy left to fall out of the draft despite immense production in college. A native of tiny Eaton, Colorado he attended Western Colorado University a school that probably would be the 6th school named by Colorado natives when asked about colleges within the state. In just 29 games Ekeler managed over 4,100 rushing yards, added 798 yards receiving, and 4 punt returns for 20 yards. To put this in perspective Ekeler held a career average of 6.5 yards per carry, at the Division II level.

Carson Newman is also DII, and Wimbush averaged 7.0 yards per carry. He wasn’t used in the receiving department as often but averaged nearly a half yard more per carry. He also provided kick return experience something Ekeler didn’t have, and had a longer resume as a punt returner as well. If not for his injury in his third year do we ever see Wimbush in an outdoor football league or are we looking at him in the NFL or CFL? No matter where he has been he’s put up elite level production. It’s time for an outdoor league to give him the call and build their offense around him. Just look at what Tony Tate, Ricky Person and more have done with their opportunities.

Check out our YouTube channel where we will have an interview with Wimbush coming!

One thought on “Is There Another Austin Eckler-Style Back Waiting to be Discovered?

Leave a Reply