Having seen it up close, Ismail Mahdi felt Incarnate Word’s offense was different. And he realized he could fit in that system.
A year ago, Mahdi was playing for Houston Christian and rushed for 87 yards – a solid performance – against UIW in a Southland Conference clash. But the Cardinals won by putting up 73 points.
Mahdi’s father approached him after the loss and noted how UIW’s coaches utilize their running backs.
“Man, that offense is great. You would fit into that offense,” Mahdi recalled his father saying in an interview with HERO Sports. “The way they scheme stuff up for the running back, the way they throw the ball, it just opens up the run game.”
So when Mahdi considered going to the FBS level after his true freshman season at HCU, joining former UIW head coach G.J. Kinne at Texas State seemed like the right place to go.
He believes it “worked out perfectly.” Mahdi is 11th in the FBS with 943 rushing yards and has been a key contributor to Texas State starting the season 6-3 and earning bowl-eligibility.
“Tremendous player. Tremendous speed. Great attitude,” Kinne told HERO Sports. “… He’s healthy now and feeling good. Just a special player and special kick returner. Great hands. Smart. He really is the whole package, and once he has a couple more offseasons under his belt, he’ll have a chance to play at the next level.”
Ismail Mahdi’s Football Journey
Mahdi and his family – consisting of eight children – are refugees from Kenya. He moved to the United States when he was 8 months old, so he doesn’t remember much. But he felt that choice, similar to his decision to go to Texas State, “worked out perfectly the way we wanted it to.”
His father wanted Mahdi to play soccer growing up, which he did. In fact, he says he didn’t start taking football seriously until his freshman year of high school.
Mahdi was drawn to football when those around him pointed out how skilled he was at the sport and how maybe, sometime in the future, he could help his family if he dedicated himself to it.
Soccer, however, did help him improve his conditioning and footwork.
Texas State offensive coordinator Mack Leftwich pointed out Mahdi is still learning the nuances of playing running back, but he’s thrilled about his potential.
“I think his ceiling is incredibly high,” Leftwich said. “We’re definitely excited about the future.”
Mahdi grew up in Murphy, Texas, which is just northeast of Dallas. As a senior at Plano East, he ran for 1,332 yards and 14 touchdowns on 178 attempts.
He said he wasn’t recruited as highly out of high school as he anticipated, but he was fine staying in Texas when he chose to go to HCU, which is about four and a half hours from Murphy.
At HCU, he ran for 568 yards and two touchdowns while adding 333 yards and three touchdowns on 33 catches in eight games. But then he decided to pursue opportunities in the Group of Five.
“That was a good stepping stone coming over as a true freshman and getting used to that speed of the game,” Mahdi said. “It helped me tremendously coming into the FBS and just having that feel and having that experience definitely got me ready to go jump up and play that different level.”
Leftwich felt, of all the transfer portal additions Texas State made this year, Mahdi was underrated because he was arriving from an FCS program. But, Leftwich added, he’s arguably been one of the most important.
“I saw the speed, and that was something we needed on offense,” Kinne said. “He had played as a true freshman in the Southland, and I was in that league. And just seeing his highlights and his vision and acceleration, I thought it would be a good fit in our offense. When you’re doing the whole portal, there’s a lot of good players and all that, but who fits your offense? And I thought he fit our offense really well.”
Ismail Mahdi’s Transfer To Texas State Football
The first time he walked into Texas State’s locker room, Mahdi took note of the lights and the cushioned chairs. Similar to seeing Kinne’s offense in-person, Mahdi realized things would be different with the Bobcats.
Mahdi meshed well with the coaching staff, which he pointed out is loaded with young and energetic mentors with “a lot of swagger to them.”
Texas State is first in the Sun Belt and 10th in the FBS in total offense with 483.4 yards per game. Kinne pointed out Texas State’s offense depends on playaction, which means the run game is critical to the team’s overall success.
Leftwich noticed defenses dropped eight players into coverage often early on this season to limit explosive plays. But after Mahdi began playing like he did, opponents began dropping an extra defender into the box to account for the run. This has opened up more one-on-one opportunities in the passing game.
“I feel like I fit perfectly in this offense,” Mahdi said. “I feel like this offense is based off explosive plays, and that’s the type of player I am.”
Texas State defied several expectations by starting the season the way it did. The Bobcats opened the year with an 11-point victory over Baylor and most recently defeated Georgia Southern 45-24.
But Mahdi said the Bobcats, even though their roster was loaded with new names, believed this kind of success was possible. In fact, this is what he expected.
That kind of attitude has made an impact on the team, Leftwich noted, as he constantly provides positive energy.
“He’s a great kid. He’s just one of those kids that always has a smile on his face, always comes to work with a great attitude,” Leftwich said. “If we had a team full of guys like him with his mindset and attitude, we’d be really happy coaches. He’s a pleasure to coach for sure, and obviously he’s a phenomenal athlete.”
Leftwich noted Mahdi’s acceleration is one of the best he’s ever been around, which has contributed to Texas State’s explosiveness. Mahdi is seventh in the country with 6.91 yards per carry.
Mahdi has especially refined his patience at the line of scrimmage. Leftwich and Mahdi both credited running backs coach Eric Stephens for those improvements made since last spring.
Stephens was technical and detailed in his teachings, Mahdi noted. Even when he made good plays, Stephens pointed out ways Mahdi could advance his skills even further.
Mahdi also gave kudos to Texas State’s offensive line. He’s developing his game by trusting those linemen up front and allowing them time to establish running lanes so he can gain more yards than he would if he relied on his speed alone.
“You watch some of those games in the early part of the year where he wasn’t the main guy getting the bulk of the carries, and a lot of that had to do with, he was in a little bit of a hurry to get the ball to the line of scrimmage,” Leftwich said. “He’s so fast and he wants to use that speed, so just started slowing him down and letting the blocks develop and setting blocks up. And then when it all kind of clears up and you get that little crease – bam.”
Leftwich said Mahdi could use this offseason to gain some strength and muscle. That way, he can more often break the tackles from safeties and turn 12-yard gains to 50-yard, game-changing plays. He could also work on his skills when he’s away from the ball, like pass protection and route running.
But as of right now, Mahdi is one of the top running backs in the Group of Five. And Texas State’s coaches believe he still has plenty of potential.
“When you get the ball in his hands,” Leftwich said, “he’s pretty special.”